The Parliament is in a lively mood these days, as there are dozens of committee and group meetings taking place, and of course a few VIPs also doing the rounds. I am trying to cut chocolate from my diet, and making little progress. I need to find some magic substitute, because excessive exercise is not going to have the necessary effect. Belgium really is the worst country in the world to have this problem.
So, speaking of problems, I thought I would discuss something that has fascinated me for some time. If you have ever thought about foregoing the Friday night pub crawl, for a quiet night in with the lads, whilst chewing on a ball of congealed silage, then qat is definitely the thing for you.
In Yemen one can say now with relative ease, that qat-chewing has become a national hobby. According to a Yemeni government survey, at least 90% of men, and 40% of women are regular qat chewers.
But what is qat?
Qat is a slow-growing shrub which is native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It produces small delicate leaves that are bitter to the taste. When chewed, they release an amphetamine-like stimulant called cathinone. For the unseasoned chewer, the immediate effect will be one of euphoria and heightened sense of alertness, similar to drinking a cup of coffee. Its potency can last for up to 48 hours. However, it can cause constipation and sore gums.
In the long-term, qat users have to contend with discoloured teeth, bulbous cheeks, impotency and even psychological problems. Qat is a menace within Yemeni society. It is an unproductive activity that only works to imbue users with lethargy. According to a report by the World Bank, at least a quarter of working hours are spent chewing the substance.
The substance is illegal in Saudi Arabia and the U.S, yet it is permitted in many European states. Qat is also popular in Somalia and Ethiopia, but in Yemen, it has become a way of life. Even the country’s president rumoured to be fond of chewing its bitter leaves.
The cultivation of qat is having a detrimental effect on the country’s water reserves. It guzzles four times as much water as a coffee plant, and this in a country which has a population boom and where experts predict will run out of viable water supplies by 2017. The UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that the Arab world ‘s poorest country receives under 200 cubic metres of water per person per year, well below the international poverty line of 1,000 cubic metres.
All kinds of solutions have been put forward such as moving the capital Sana’a and desalinating sea water, yet the problem is obvious, Yemen’s population is hooked on little green leaves which are putting this poor nation at risk of thirst and starvation. At present it is forced to import 80% of its food needs.
On top of that, the Yemeni government is forced to contend with other threats such as: al-Qaeda, a southern secessionist movement and Houthi rebels in the north of the country. As it stands, increased water shortages do not help matters.
Unfortunately there are those who consider qat to be a suitable alternative to drugs or alcohol, even though its social impact is felt everywhere in Yemen. Its scourge is just as costly as any other dependency-inducing substance. Yemeni authorities have to insist on kicking this national addiction.