Yemen's Qat Addiction
"'The increase in qat cultivation is having a huge impact on the groundwater (stock),' says Noori Gamal, senior hydro-geologist at the Ministry of Water and Environment. 'Agriculture accounts for about 90 percent of Yemen's groundwater consumption, and at least 30 percent of this is used just for growing qat.'
"The National Water Resources Authority (NWRA) estimates Yemen's total renewable water resources at 2.5 billion cubic metres a year, while more than 3.4 billion cubic metres is consumed annually. With consumption far exceeding the rate of natural recharge, it is only a matter of time before groundwater is pumped dry."
The problem, however, seems not to be with the choice of crop so much as irrigation methods:
"Abdullah insists that qat is not a water-intensive shrub; the problem is that fields are irrigated in the traditional manner, which wastes a lot of water. 'We create terraces and flood them,' he says. 'But we are also careful not to give the trees too much water because otherwise their leaves will grow to a size where they lose value.'
"Agriculture experts say 20 to 30 percent of water can be saved each year by applying modern irrigation techniques such as sprinkler irrigation, drip systems and micro tube-bubbler systems. However, the low cost of water pumping gives farmers little incentive to adopt these techniques."
Based on this, it's not clear to me why simply changing crops would lead to that much water savings. Yemen's government is trying to shift subsidies in such a way so as to encourage farmers to switch to different crops of change techniques, but it would seem that directly subsidizing efficiently irrigated crops would be the best way to go.
The problems with qat, however, go deeper than just the environment. Production of this narcotic has chased out much coffee production, as coffee takes longer to mature and doesn't produce as much, as well as food, meaning that Yemen is no longer self-sufficient in food. Qat isn't even marketable abroad, so the social costs of qat chewing fall entirely on Yemen. I hadn't realized, however, that Yemen was this much of a narcostate:
"Unfortunately, it's not that simple," Noori asserts. 'Qat is a major source of tax revenue and the centre of all corruption in Yemen. Over 50 percent of tax revenue is derived from qat, but this is only about a third of the real revenue it generates. Everyone from farmers to the highest officials is involved in the qat trade and taking money under the table.'
"While the government makes broad statements about its intention to reduce the consumption and cultivation of the narcotic plant, any genuine effort is thwarted from within, he adds. 'Much of the crop is actually grown on government land, so officials involved will block any attempt to reduce its market.'"
If that's the case, the changes in irrigation may be the best Yemenis can hope for in the near term.