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How Yemen Chewed Itself Dry

Farming Qat, Wasting Water

A Yemeni man chews qat in the main qat market in Sana'a May 9, 2007.
A Yemeni man chews qat in the main qat market in Sana'a May 9, 2007. (Ahmed Jadallah / Courtesy Reuters)

In a little over a decade, Sana’a, Yemen, may become the world’s first capital to run out of water. Failed governance and environmental mismanagement share some of the blame for drying up the city. But there is also a more surprising culprit: a national addiction to qat, a narcotic that is incredibly water-intensive to cultivate.

If current trends continue, by 2025 the city’s projected 4.2 million inhabitants will become water refugees, forced to flee their barren home for wetter lands. In preparation, some officials have already considered relocating the capital to the coast. Others have proposed focusing on desalination and conservation to buy time.

As policymakers butt heads over the best course for Yemen, the dwindling water supply is already leading to instability: according to Al-Thawra, one of the country's leading newspapers, 70 to 80 percent of conflicts in Yemen’s rural regions are water-related. And across the country, Yemen’s Interior Ministry estimates, water- and land-related disputes result in about 4,000 deaths each year -- 35 times the number of casualties in the deadliest al Qaeda attack in the country’s history.

THE QAT CAME BACK

The cultivation of qat, a mild narcotic plant that releases a stimulant when chewed, accounts for up to 40 percent of the water drawn from the Sana’a Basin each year, and that figure is rising. That is both because qat takes a lot of water to farm (much more than coffee, another plant that does well in Yemen’s fertile soil) and because cultivation of it increases by around 12 percent each year, according to Yemen’s Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources. Not only is the crop drying the Sana’a Basin, it has displaced over tens of thousands of hectares of vital crops -- fruits, vegetables, and coffee -- which has sent food prices soaring. According to the World Bank, rising food prices, in turn, pushed an additional six percent of the country into poverty in 2008 alone.

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