The paradox of Qat

Yemen faces a potential national security crisis if its water resources continue to dry up, however solutions do exist.

Yemeni child carrying straw
Qat production may well be sustaining the livelihoods of many farmers in Yemen, but this water intensive practise is proving to be a double-edged sword [EPA]

Among the challenges Yemen faces, none may be more daunting than that of water sustainability.

One of the glibber pronouncements about Yemen made by the international press is that the country will “run out” of water within a decade or so, unless something is done to alleviate the scarcity. But what does “running out” mean for a substance like water as opposed to oil, say, or gas?

Potable water comes from underground aquifers, it pours from the sky (my friends in Yemen report that the rains have been plentiful this year and crops are doing well), and it can be “manufactured” out of the sea (as in desalinisation plants). Yemen has access to all three, though not uniformly across the country, and therein lies the problem, as I shall try to explain.

With its long coast line along the Red and Arabian Seas, Yemen has ready access to sea water which it could (and does outside Aden and Hodeidah) desalinate. This has been the tactic of the Gulf countries which arguably have less fresh water even than Yemen.

However, the cost for such desalination is steep for a relatively poor country like Yemen (unless subsidised by donor agencies), the environmental impacts of desalination plants on its marine coasts will be deleterious (because of salt discharge that is put back into the sea, affecting corals and other marine life), and the energy required to run them – whether electrical, diesel fuel or solar – no less expensive.

There is also the challenge of delivering desalinated water to the mountainous and water-depleted interior (a problem not faced by the Gulf states with the possible exception of Oman), given that water is heavy and would cost a bundle to transport from the sea to, say, the capital Sana’a, more than six thousand feet above sea level. So, while desalination, for all its drawbacks, might alleviate water shortages in coastal areas, it is not a solution for the rest of the country.

Many of Yemen’s water basins have extremely low water tables, due to agricultural overuse and slow recharge, but not all of them. Wadi Hadhramawt, for example, arguably the most verdant wadi in the Arabian Peninsula, does have large quantities of underground water, as do some wadis north of the Arabian Sea port-city of Mukallah. If water could be moved from these areas to other, more parched ones (such as Marib) – again, a physically difficult proposition because of Yemen’s topography – or people could migrate to them – a politically difficult proposition (though internal migrations have happened all the time in the past), then at least some of the problem might be alleviated.

The solution most often trumpeted by policy-makers concerns qat, a plant whose succulent leaves are chewed by many Yemenis, male and female, for their juices that can induce mild euphoria and mental alertness. The international order views qat as a narcotic, even though it is more socially than physically addicting (I chew it and have no withdrawal symptoms when I go cold turkey upon returning to the States, though I miss the social atmosphere that comes with the chew).

Qat cultivation takes up the lion’s share of water used in agriculture (estimates vary but the most common figure is around 60%) and agriculture, of course, uses up most of the water consumed in the country (around 90%), so if one could prohibit qat cultivation (or more realistically scale it back), some argue, a substantial amount of water would be saved and could be used for more productive purposes.

What is not so often stated in such recommendations is that qat is an immensely lucrative cash crop in a country whose economy does not offer many viable alternatives for earning comparable incomes; prohibit or scale back its production and you impoverish farmers, a mainstay of the economy.

If those same farmers were subsidised not to grow qat, much as U.S. farmers are for not growing certain crops, you might provide an incentive, but given how strapped the Yemeni government is for cash, this is not a likely scenario — unless international donor agencies stepped in. Would they do it, though, in this era of neo-liberal ideology? Capacity-building, yes, bailouts, no (if only Yemen had a stock exchange).

Water-purification, gray-water reuse, and state-of-the-art water conservation technologies are being introduced into Yemen, particularly in the agricultural sector, and these all help. But it should be clear that there is no one silver bullet (finding a new underground water source) or one approach (economic) that will significantly address Yemen’s water problem, rather it is a combination of them, differently applied to each region of the country depending on its topography, existing water resources, and local economy.

Coming up with such solutions will require patient research and careful planning. At the same time, the international order (and here one must include the Gulf countries) can do more, not just in providing technical assistance but in providing jobs for Yemenis in their own economies (Yemen used to have a robust remittance system that helped the economy enormously) but also in funding solutions it might not find palatable given the philosophy of endless capacity-building leading to self-reliance — a good thing, if you can manage it, but maybe not all can, or not all the time.

So to say that Yemen is “running out of water” is to obscure a reality that is, to be sure, complex but not intractable. We must not give up on a country where the rains have been plentiful this year, always a sign that better things lie around the corner.

Steve Caton is Professor of Contemporary Arab Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University and former Director of Harvard’s Centre for Middle East Studies (2004-2010).

He is also author of Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation (Hill and Wang 2005) and Peaks of Yemen I Summon: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe (University of California Press, 1993).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy