Yemen faces many challenges. It is the poorest Arab country. Forty-two percent of its people live below the poverty line. Water shortages, high unemployment rates, internal divisions and the presence of the Arabian Peninsula branch of Al-Qaeda are just some of the issues facing Yemen’s twenty-four million-strong population. But a less known issue in Yemen is the widespread use of the narcotic drug khat.
What is it?
Khat is just one name for the flowering plant that is thought to have originated in Ethiopia. It has been present in Yemen since at least the eleventh century and even predates the production of coffee there. It contains cathinone, a stimulant similar to amphetamine.
In order to get the desired effect of khat, the user chews the leaves of the plant before storing them in a cheek. The cathinone gradually makes its way into the bloodstream through saliva and this induces mild euphoria and excitement. The user will become more alert and talkative but may also feel calmer as a result of chewing the plant.
Some liken the use of khat to marijuana. The effects are not dissimilar. As with any drug, there are side effects that come along once it has worn off, such as mild depression, hallucinations and loss of appetite. There are also long-term side effects, some of which are serious. But two of the biggest concerns are that khat keeps people in poverty and that its continued, widespread use has serious implications for Yemen’s depleted water resources.
Estimates vary, but as many as 90 percent of adult men and one in four women chew khat regularly. With forty-two percent of Yemenis living on less than two dollars a day, this is an expensive habit. It is also time consuming; daily users – most of them men – will spend hours chewing khat with their friends. Who knows what people are sacrificing in order to keep up their habit? Meals? The well-being of their children? Work? Khat certainly does not benefit the poor.
Growing khat makes a farmer more money than growing vegetables, so it is much more lucrative. But khat needs a lot more water than other crops. Yemen’s water table is drying up and with khat field irrigation accounting for thirty percent of consumption there is a very real danger that Yemen will become the world’s first country to run out of water.
What can be done?
While tax on khat has increased significantly and chewing it in public has been banned, there is no sign that either of these have slowed down consumption. Sadly, as khat is so popular and brings in so much money, there is no great impetus to ban it outright. In view of last year’s revolutionary events, anything so drastic as a ban would not be good for stability.
There are, however, groups in Yemen that are campaigning for the end of khat use. In January, thousands gathered in cities there to urge a one-day boycott. More and more Yemenis are against it and are challenging their own people to give it up. They are trying to educate people in the harmful effects of khat use.
It is very easy to think only of spiritual needs when praying for Yemen, but it is important that people’s lives are improved physically too. The purpose of this article is to seek this kind of prayer in the belief that physical transformation leads to spiritual transformation. So, lift up the millions of Yemenis whose lives are affected negatively by the use of khat.
- Pray for the forty-two percent of Yemenis who live below the poverty line – that they might have the will and determination to get out of poverty and recognise that khat use might be keeping them there.
- Pray for the success of campaigns that seek to increase awareness of the detrimental effects of khat use.
- Pray that the government would find ways of sustaining water supplies.
- Pray that Yemen would be transformed for the good by its own people.