YEMEN: Qat Cultivation Draining Water Reserves

  • by Cam McGrath (sana'a)
  • Thursday, May 28, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

'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 water table is dropping up to six metres a year in some areas,' says Gamal. 'In places where water used to be near the surface people must now drill hundreds of metres to find it. Some underground reservoirs have already been exhausted.'

Yemen's per capita use of water, estimated at 125 cubic metres per year, is already among the world's lowest. Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation project that per capital annual share of water resources will drop to a critical 62.5 cubic metres within the next 15 years unless drastic measures are taken.

Meanwhile, qat cultivation continues to expand due to its profitability - about five times higher than grapes and up to 20 times higher than potatoes, according to growers. Yemen's primary cash crop now occupies an estimated 145,000 hectares of land, up from 80,000 hectares a decade ago.

The valley where Abdullah tends his qat shrubs was once famous for its fruit orchards and coffee plantations, but many farmers have switched to qat. 'They used to grow coffee here,' the farmer says, pointing to the fields he guards with an AK-47, 'but coffee is not a secure crop. Coffee plants bear fruit only in the fall and market prices change according to many factors. Qat produces leaves year-round and there is always high demand.'

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.

A study backed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) titled 'Towards the Formulation of a Comprehensive Qat Policy', the de facto national strategy, urged the elimination of fuel, electricity and fertiliser subsidies to encourage qat farmers to either adopt more efficient irrigation techniques, or switch to other crops. Diesel, used in pumping groundwater, represents about 80 percent of the cost of cultivating qat.

The study also recommended other measures, such as the taxation of qat sales and extension of credit to fruit and vegetable farmers as a way of promoting alternative crops. 'Farmers are profit motivated, regardless of their illiteracy or low levels of education. Hence, one of the main means to control, decrease, and possibly eradicate qat production is to identify a number of substituting crops capable of giving the farmers at least equal net incomes,' the report said.

Research suggests coffee and to a lesser extent grapes could compete with qat's profitability in some areas, though these crops offer negligible water savings. Noori prefers cactus - a succulent plant ideally suited to Yemen's arid climate. 'Cactus produces delicious and healthy fruit, and can be grown without the need to irrigate,' he says. 'Cut a cactus leaf and drop it to the ground anywhere in Yemen and it will grow without any help.'

Removing qat subsidies while introducing incentives for farmers to grow alternative crops would seem an effective strategy to initiate a wide-scale shift away from qat cultivation.

'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.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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