How an Obscure Drug's Cultivation Led to Civil War in Yemen

Politics Features Yemen
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How an Obscure Drug's Cultivation Led to Civil War in Yemen

The civil war in Yemen has plummeted the country into a humanitarian crisis similar in many ways to the tragedy in Syria. Up to 10,000 people have been killed in the war, 21 million people—or 80 percent of the population on the brink of starvation according to the United Nations, and three million others have been displaced and forced to leave their homes.

The perpetual combat, the invasion of terrorist fundamentalists, the threat of disease, devastating famine, and historic drought have all led to what is essentially a failed state. What came first has its roots deeply embedded in the ancient Yemeni tradition of chewing an obscure drug called khat (qat). Since many Yemenis are devout Muslims prohibited from drinking alcohol, nearly every man, most women, and many children chew the plant to get their buzz, with 97 percent of its production being consumed inside the country.

Yemen may run out of water within a decade, some experts even say by the end of the year. And khat, a mild narcotic plant similar to amphetamines that give the person chewing it an energized euphoria similar to drinking a lot of caffeine, uses even more water to farm than the beans that made the country famous for its coffee. The word Mocha even derives from the Yemeni city of the same name. If you were to walk the streets of Yemen’s capital city Sana’a in the late afternoon, you would see the ubiquitous plant in the bulge of civilians’ cheeks as they passed by.

Khat also takes up precious land instead of using it for agriculture, which comprises a significant portion of Yemen’s GDP. While their economy is hopelessly dependent on the distribution of the drug, Yemen is also currently the poorest country in the Arab world. The cultivation of khat—the country’s most lucrative crop—consumes around 30 percent of the total water according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and that water is extremely scarce. This is a conservative estimate, other reports indicate it uses more than half of Yemen’s water.

The increasingly dry, riverless land of Yemen has failed to meet the demands of the exploding population in the country. In 1990, the population was 11 million people, but is at 25 million today, more than doubling over the last 25 years according to figures reported by the WHO and UNICEF. Today, only 13 million people have treated water to drink and even less have unimproved or surface water.

As khat continues to suck up the country’s water in its underground aquifers, the allocation of resources is one of the largest contributing factors for the uprising of Houthi rebels and the endeavors of revolution. With no food, water, or the means to obtain these basic necessities of life, the sectarian rebels essentially took up arms in complete desperation. The civil war is mostly an attempt at a change, any kind of change, in order to achieve a government that provides the essentials for life to the people.

“Really they are all about sharing and participating in the resources of the country,” said Abdulrahman Al Eryani, Yemen’s Minister of Water and Environment. “Either oil, or water and land.

In addition to the poor distribution of resources on the part of the government, the Houthis also critique the regime for its corruption, which also ties into the allocation of land, crops, and water. Critics have pointed out the government is intimately involved with khat production, accusing the elite politicians of owning much of the land the plant is produced on including the substantial portion of state-owned property in the south of the country. Khat production takes up one-third of agricultural GDP in Yemen according to the World Bank, and agriculture is the country’s literal and proverbial life source. There is also a staggering 20 percent consumption tax on the narcotic, as the vast quantities rake in substantial revenue for the government.

As with any uprising, people are desperate for solutions. With Al-Qaeda and ISIS finding a safe haven in war-torn Yemen, the possibility for the terrorist organizations to garner new recruits is high. Attacks from the terrorists have caused further unrest, even killing a governor in an attack in December 2015. The intrusion of terrorist extremists has also had political repercussions, landing Yemen on the list of both versions of President Donald Trump’s travel ban. With the focus on Syrian refugees and the imminent need to escape the situation in Yemen, the citizens of the country are desperate to gain asylum somewhere else now more than ever.

As children starve and die of thirst, the civil war shows no signs of coming to a close and the production of the mild narcotic shows no indication that it is slowing down, as use of the drug is on the rise. Though the country has imposed a weekday ban on sale of the drug, production has steadily increased 12 percent every year.

The production of khat, the lack of water, and the brutality of starvation culminated in the civil war the United States is complicity engaged in. Supporting the Saudi-led coalition, the campaign has bombed weddings, botched on-the-ground raids, and—purposefully or otherwise—attacked the Houthis, who are backed by the Iranian government. All of which has led to the brutal humanitarian meltdown, the collapse of a rich culture, and the destabilization of yet another Middle Eastern state.

Still, most Yemenis are not capable of seeing the connection between the drug and the brutality of the situation in their country. Not only does the drug invigorate them, heal them, and keep their spirits up in these trying times, it is a tradition dating back much further than the conflict or the climate-change-induced drought. As the custom of taking the drug depletes water, uses up the already sterile land, and is a driving factor of both the debilitating starvation and incessant warfare, the Yemeni people still use khat, which keeps them cripplingly poor, hungry to the point of famine, dying of thirst, and without a semblance of hope.

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