Will Yemen's Capital Run Out of Water Growing a Drug?

Published on November 3rd, 2009 | by

Where once there were 180 wells, now there are 80…What if an entire CITY ran out of drinking water? Sanaa, Yemen, the country’s capital, is dealing with a massive water shortage. The World Bank’s Sanaa Water Basin Management Project says the city could run out of drinking water in just 15 years. Some say a major culprit is qat, a plant deeply embedded in Yemen’s culture and chewed for its stimulant effect by up to 70% of the male population.

image by CharlesFred40% of available water in Yemen goes to the cultivation of qat
40% of available water in Yemen goes to the cultivation of qat

Qat contains compounds that are in the same family as amphetamines, and it can produce euphoria and promote talkativeness. From what I’ve read, it sounds like it parallels the way coffee is used and embedded in U.S. culture. With that kind of high use and cultural attachment, changing habits will be difficult. Loss of water is even more exacerbated by the effects of climate change- many of the new residents coming to Sanaa are climate change refugees from elsewhere in the region.

The World Bank’s report also says that Yemen’s aquifers are losing 20-65 feet a year, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace elaborated that 19 of 21 main aquifers are not being replenished because of a lack of rainfall- the region has been in a major drought for the last 4 years.

The situation is dire- Where the international water poverty line is drawn at 1,000 cubic meters available per person per year, Yemen as only 100-200 cubic meters. The population in Sanaa has quadrupled since 1980, now at over 2 million and still growing at 8% per year.

Yemini Deputy Planning Minister Hisham Sharaf sums up the bottom line:

“If we continue spending this much water on qat, Sanaa has 10 to 15 years.”

There is plenty of talk about coming water shortages and climate change refugees because of climate change, but the messages continue to be written from the perspective that they are in the future, or that they are affecting small populations. For Sanaa, the problems are immediate and coming from all sides- climate change, drought, rapidly expanding population and the cultivation of qat.

In Yemen, the future of the water crisis is now.

Research and quotes from TerraDaily.


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2 comments

  • some research which i have to share with you

    One estimate suggests that 80 to 90 percent of new wells in the Highlands are used for qat production (Varisco, 1986). Farmers have been provided with subsidized pumps instead of education in appropriate water-conserving techniques, leading to the installation of wells without regard to future consequences (Figure 6). Yet there may be a growing national recognition that water is being squandered. Hossain (1993) writes, “So far water has been treated as a free gift of nature and was harnessed recklessly, leading to the current inefficient, inequitable use.” However, for as long as qat delivers on its promise of riches, mere suasion is unlikely to result in behavioral changes.

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