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Is Yemen Chewing Itself to Death?
PostPosted: Tue Aug 25, 2009 3:02 pm Reply with quote
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Is Yemen Chewing Itself to Death?
By Andrew Lee Butters Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009

Yemenis chew khat leaves, a mild narcotic, in the capital Sana'a
Paul Garwood / AP

By 4 in the afternoon, most men walking the streets of Sana'a are high, or about to get high not on any sort of manufactured narcotics, but on khat, a shrub whose young leaves contain a compound with effects similar to those of amphetamines. Khat is popular in many countries of the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa, but in Yemen it's a full-blown national addiction. As much as 90% of men and 1 in 4 women in Yemen are estimated to chew the leaves, storing a wad in one cheek as the khat slowly breaks down into the saliva and enters the bloodstream. The newcomer to Yemen's ancient capital can't miss the spectacle of almost an entire adult population presenting cheeks bulging with cud, leaving behind green confetti of discarded leaves and branches.

For its many devotees, khat is a social lubricant on a par with coffee or alcohol in the West. Indeed, because chewing the leaf isn't forbidden by Islam, "khat is alcohol for Muslims," says Yahya Amma, the head merchant at the Agriculture Suq, one of the largest khat markets in the city. "You can chew it and still go to prayers." The leaf's energy-boosting and hunger-numbing properties help university students focus on their homework, allows underpaid laborers to work without meals and, according to local lore, offers the same help to impotent men that Westerners seek in Viagra. Evening khat ceremonies regular salon gatherings (usually only of men) to chew and chat about matters great and small are the country's basic form of socializing.

But khat's detractors say the leaf is destroying Yemen. At around $5 for a bag (the amount typically consumed by a single regular user in a day) it's an expensive habit in a country where about 45% of the population lives below the poverty line. (Most families spend more money on khat than on food, according to government figures.) A khat-addled public is more inclined to complacency about the failings of the government, khat ceremonies reinforce the exclusion of women from power and, as is obvious to anyone finding a government office nearly empty on a weekday morning, khat is keeping the country awake well past its bedtime.

"You sit up discussing all your problems and think you've solved everything, but in fact you haven't done anything in the last four hours, because you've just been chewing khat and all your problems actually got worse," says Adel al-Shujaa, a professor of political science at Sana'a University and the head of the Yemen Without Khat Association. Plus, he says, "all the decisions you've made are bad because you've made them while on khat."

But the worst thing about khat may be that it is sucking Yemen dry.

The plant thrives in the high hill country outside Sana'a, where nearly every patch of irrigated land is covered in khat. Unlike coffee, which Yemenis claim was first cultivated here, khat is easy to grow and harvest. And though cultivating and dealing the leaf doesn't generate the kind of instant wealth associated with growing poppies in Afghanistan or coca in Colombia, it certainly provides a steadier income than growing vegetables does that's why nearly all of the country's arable land is devoted to khat. And khat needs a lot of water, which is scarce in Yemen.

Khat fields are typically flooded twice a month, consuming about 30% of the country's water most of which is pumped from underground aquifers filled thousands of years ago, and replenished only very slowly by the occasional rainfall that seeps through the layers of soil and rock. A recent explosion of khat cultivation has drawn water levels down to the point where they are no longer being replenished. The option of pumping desalinated water over long pipelines from coastal plants is too expensive for such a poor country. Yemen is in real danger of becoming the world's first country to run out of water.

"I tell UNHCR that they should start buying tents [for the communities that would be forced to move in search of drinking water]," says Michael Klingler, a hydrologist and the local director of GTZ, the German government's technical-assistance team, which is advising Yemen on water-management issues.

A massive drought accelerated by khat cultivation and the resultant population displacement could have a devastating impact in one of the most fragile countries in the Middle East. A separatist insurgency in the south is threatening to break the country apart, while pirates from Somalia are menacing the coast. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, has long seen the lawless tribal lands in the northern mountains as a potential sanctuary.

Quitting khat would double the amount of household water available, says Klingler, but that may only slow the onset of crisis. The hydrologist argues that Yemen needs to revert to consuming only as much water as it collects from rains and to import most of its food from abroad.

Despite the danger, Yemen isn't about to go cold turkey anytime soon. Not only are most of the country's leaders landowners deeply involved in khat production, the leaf may be one of the few things still holding Yemen together. Says Ashraf Al-Eryani, one of GTZ's local program officers, "Khat plays a big role in keeping people calm, and keeping them off the streets. But it's also delaying change. It's hard to convince people to act now."[/img]

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Obscured By War, Water Crisis Looms In Yemen
PostPosted: Sun Nov 22, 2009 4:33 pm Reply with quote
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Obscured By War, Water Crisis Looms In Yemen
by Peter Kenyon

Yemeni women gather around a water well south of San'a, the Yemeni capital, on May 15. The poor, war-stricken country is suffering from yet another disaster water shortages that will only worsen as limited underground supplies run out.

November 20, 2009

Lately, the news from Yemen has been dominated by an escalating rebellion along the border with Saudi Arabia. But for water experts, Yemen has been making news for decades because of its severe overuse of a rapidly disappearing water supply.

In 1998, Abdul Rahman al-Eryani was a young local aid worker explaining the desperate water situation in Ta'iz, south of the capital, San'a. Water was so scarce that some households only had it once every six weeks.

Eleven years later, Eryani is now the Yemeni government minister of water and environment, Ta'iz residents are still waiting six weeks for water to flow from the tap, and in San'a, the situation has gone from bad to looming disaster.

"We are in crisis. And this is expected. We are using almost 100 percent more than the annual renewable water that's available in San'a," Eryani says.

The alluvial aquifers closer to the surface have been exhausted, and drill bits must now chew through more than 3,000 feet of earth before reaching the ancient sandstone aquifer that holds what Eryani believes is the last of San'a's reachable underground supply.

No one knows precisely when the water supply will run out, but there's no doubt that it will, and probably sooner rather than later.

Yemenis are responding by drilling illegal wells and pumping more water than ever.

Nature And Policy Blunders To Blame

On a recent day, well water gushes into Hassan al-Jibouri's tanker truck at a roadside pump along one of San'a's main streets. Jibouri and his fellow drivers spend their days selling water to hotels, restaurants and private homes.

He says a typical water delivery costs 1,000 rials, or about $5. If he has to drive a long distance, it might cost a bit more.

Yemen's water crisis is, in part, the inevitable result of a rapidly growing population, limited rainfall and finite water resources.

Yemen farmers long ago adopted the practice of terraced farming on steep mountain slopes to capture rainwater. But since the 1970s, farmers have been encouraged to drill wells, depleting limited underground aquifers. About 40 percent of available water goes to khat, shown here on a hillside in northern Yemen. Many Yemenis chew the mildly narcotic leaf.

But experts and ordinary Yemenis agree that policy blunders have accelerated the crisis and made it harder to fix.

First, there is the massive problem of agriculture. Despite the severe shortages of drinking water, at least 85 percent of Yemen's available water goes to agriculture, where huge amounts are wasted.

For centuries, Yemeni farmers captured rainwater for their crops. But in the 1970s, well-intentioned international groups such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund showed up with a raft of incentives to get farmers to drill wells and use underground aquifers instead.

Anwer Sahooly is a water expert with the German Development Corp., a major player in Yemen's water reform efforts. He says more than 1 million acres of farmland that used to be rain-fed are now irrigated with underground water, using inefficient methods that lose vast amounts of water to evaporation and leakage.

"We have to reverse the process now, and make people get used to rainwater harvesting. We have to encourage harvesting from floods, from spit irrigation, from every drop that we get, and stop drilling any more wells," he says.

Cash Crop Depletes Water Supply

Despite a new law outlawing most private wells, the drilling goes on. The sound of water pumps can be heard on farm plots all around the capital. The most popular crop of all is khat, a plant that produces a mildly narcotic leaf that Yemenis love to chew.

Small farmer Abdullah al-Jidri, sporting a softball-sized wad of khat leaves in his left cheek, says many farmers would be happy to grow fruits, vegetables and grains, but they can't live without the cash brought in by khat.

"With food crops, we have to wait for a year or longer to get a harvest, and if there's a problem, you won't get a crop. But with khat, you just put some water on it and you have leaves in a month's time that you can sell immediately. It's a cash crop," he says.

When asked whether he's heard that the government wants farmers to stop growing khat to save water, Jidri and his brother laugh.

"Don't believe the officials. They ask us to grow more khat for them to chew," he says.

Other than cash for farmers, Yemenis agree that khat produces no benefit, and in fact impairs the productivity of much of the labor force most afternoons. But efforts to curtail khat production and consumption are so far largely ineffectual.

Water A Hard Sell Amid Other Problems

Some long-term reforms are under way, notably the decentralization of water management to the local level. Officials are also replacing open-channel water lines and flood irrigation methods with more efficient pipes and drip hoses.

But Sahooly, the water expert, says it is hard to bring water to the top of the agenda in a country with so many problems.

"It's very important in my opinion that there should be a champion, at the level of the president, vice president, always talking about water issues. All civilization has grown around water. Water is life, and we have known that for a long time," he says.

At the moment, however, a violent rebellion, secessionist movements and a growing al-Qaida presence are drowning out the voices of those warning that a massive water failure could soon be Yemen's biggest problem of all

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Is Yemen Chewing Itself to Death?
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