Qat and Famine in Yemen
The Economist recently posted a short article called Qat-Wrenching: The Drug that is Starving Yemen. The byline reads “Famine in Yemen could be avoided if the men chewed less qat.” It is bad enough that the deplorable humanitarian crisis in Yemen is so seldom given the coverage it deserves, but this mischievous article adds only to the misinformation about Yemen. Let’s be clear: Yemen is facing famine because of an almost total blockade by a Saudi-led coalition that has stopped almost all food imports to the population in areas controlled by the Huthis. Stop the blockade and the daily bombing campaign (which has wiped out food factories in Yemen) and the threat of famine is lifted.
Foreign reporters love writing about the use of qāt (Catha edulis), a stimulant plant with leaves that are stored in the mouth to produce a stimulant impact similar to pseudoephedrine. Despite the journalist’s spin, qāt is not a “weed,” but a tree. It does not grow wild, but needs to be cultivated. Referring to it as Yemen’s “viagra” or a kind of Yemeni “whiskey” is rather off the mark. Whether or not qāt enhances sexual performance is still an open question; it is said to promote infertility in baboons. Whiskey, as I am sure the journalists who write for The Economist know, is an intoxicant; qāt will not get you drunk any more than coffee will.
One important point that the article mentions but dismisses is that a major side effect of qāt chewing is that it retards the appetite. In this sense, it allows individuals to go longer without food. Of course it is no substitute for food, but Yemen’s population is far too large to be supported exclusively by its own agricultural production. Even if the entire land area devoted to qāt in Yemen were turned over to food crops, this would not allow Yemen to feed itself. The increase in production of qāt consumes perhaps as much as 40% of Yemen’s irrigation, which has led to rapidly dwindling water tables, but this serious problem is not mentioned in the article. At the same time, it needs to be noted that qāt is a cash crop, the income from which allows those Yemenis who grow it to buy food.
My point is not to defend the use of qāt, but to de-exoticize it. While there are clear negative health impacts, especially for heavy chewing, there are also health benefits, especially as noted in traditional medicine. The money spent by individuals who do not have their own qāt could clearly be better spent on food, but it remains to be seen if Yemenis are starving their families in order to buy qāt. The fact that the Huthis pay soldiers, often underage, in qāt rather than hard cash is a pathetic injustice, but the Saudis also failed to properly pay their mercenaries.
So qāt is not starving Yemen, the Saudi coalition is. The threat of famine is not only a problem in the blockaded Huthi areas, but also in parts of Yemen supposedly under control of the Saudi coalition. Currently almost 18 million of Yemen’s estimated 26 million population are food insecure. The head of humanitarian relief for the United Nations recently noted that Yemen, after three years of a devastating and brutal war, “looks like the Apocalypse.” I do not know if this article on qāt was just the typical nonsense of journalists who have no clue about Yemen or if the Saudis paid to take away a focus on their war crimes, but either way it is a shame that The Economist promotes such ignorance.