03 November, 2009

Qat Dries Out Land and People

Is it worth chewing qat? It depends on who you ask; most people here in Yemen believe, qat is a necessity and a normal part of daily life. Although most people in Hadhramout still frown on the chewing of the narcotic leaves, its use is fast spreading.

Qat is at the center of Yemeni culture. Especially for men. It brings people together and many discussions and decisions are made during the chewing of the leaves. Cultivating qat and the trade of the leaves, keeps many people busy and gives many a source for earning income. Millions depend on it. The chewing of qat too, has made many here who would have opted for much worse intoxicants - avoid them.

In most neighboring, Arab and Muslim countries, qat is banned. In many other parts of the world, it is considered a crime to possess qat. Most religious scholars consider qat's bad sides too many, but very few have declared it haram. Medically, qat has very adverse side effects. No matter how one looks at it - the cost of growing and chewing qat is just too much. And with time, it keeps adding and piling up.

Most families here barely earn enough to feed themselves, and yet most men and some women, being too dependent on the leaves, have to purchase qat and other treats that go with the chewing, such as soft drinks and sweets - at the expense of basic goods and needs for the family; many families too, keep aside the best and largest rooms in their houses for qat sessions. Many better and beneficial social activities like sports and other recreational activities, are put aside due to much time being taken during much of the afternoons and evenings for chewing the plant. It also leads some to take bribes at work and to being corrupt so as to keep up the habit. And the cost to the country's health system is enormous.

Economically, the chewing of the intoxicant leads to fewer work hours and thus less production. This might be disputed by many qat chewers who claim that the chewing of the leaves sharpens their minds, lifts their spirits, gives them more energy and makes them work harder and better. Then there is the enormous amount of money used, nationally, daily, on the leaves: each day, billions are used on the leaves. If only for only one day, all the money for that day which is to be used on qat is collected and spent on social services - several clinics and schools can be built with only that day's money.

And now, across the country there is the other very destructive, very bad side of qat: its cultivation, which take up huge tracts of land, uses a 'vast and growing share of the water'. At a very fast rate. Yemen has always been a country with very little water, but now, the scarcity has become worse; with thousands, in some areas, now reportedly clambering up high mountains to find water. And with the population of Yemen growing fast, now at about 20 million but expected to triple in the next 40 years to 60 million - what lies ahead is terrifying to contemplate.

Across Yemen, the underground water sources that sustain 24 million people are running out, and some areas could be depleted in just a few years. It is a crisis that threatens the very survival of this arid, overpopulated country.....

Climate change is deepening the problem, making seasonal rains less reliable and driving up average temperatures in some areas.....

The chewing of qat is not only a part of Yemeni life; it is widespread in many parts of the Horn of Africa, East Africa and - though banned in all the neighboring Peninsula states - many in these countries illegally chew the plant. In East Africa, qat is mainly cultivated by non-Muslims but mostly chewed by Muslims. And the very adverse consequences of chewing qat or khat or miraa, is easily noticeable there: go to any urban center in East Africa, most African Muslims are poor; many, are in that stage of abject poverty due to the chewing of the plant which takes a large amount of their earnings, which in turn makes it almost impossible for them to educate their children or uplift their families economically.

Qat's very adverse, destructive effects is not only on families and communities. Its worst consequences is on nations. It rips and destroys. Countries whose populations chew the leaves most, seem to be in the greatest mess. Look at Somalia, Ethiopia and now Yemen. Djibouti and Eritrea are no better off; Northern Kenya is the most underdeveloped and lawless in that country. Will it get even worse for Yemen; this great country of the Queen of Sheba?

"For millenniums, Yemen preserved traditions of careful water use. Farmers depended mostly on rainwater collection and shallow wells. In some areas they built dams, including the great Marib dam in northern Yemen, which lasted for more than 1,000 years until it collapsed in the sixth century A.D...............Yemen has suffered ecological crises before and survived. The collapse of the Marib dam, for instance, led to a famine that pushed vast numbers of people to migrate abroad, and their descendants are now scattered across the Middle East." Will we Yemenis rise; and overcome and survive as before? Only time will tell.