Yemen fact of the day

by on November 3, 2009 at 5:50 am in Economics | Permalink

…the market price of water has quadrupled in the past four years,
pushing more and more people to drill illegally into rapidly receding

Here is the longer (and fascinating) story.  Basically the country is running out of water.  The article focuses on the fact that half of the Yemeni water supply goes to grow an addictive drug called qat.  Here is more:

…in the late 1960s, motorized drills began to proliferate, allowing
farmers and villagers to pump water from underground aquifers much
faster than it could be replaced through natural processes. The number
of drills has only grown since they were outlawed in 2002.

Despite the destructive effects of qat, the Yemeni government supports
it, through diesel subsidies, loans and customs exemptions, Mr. Eryani
said. It is illegal to import qat, and powerful growers known here as
the “qat mafia” have threatened to shoot down any planes bringing in
cheaper qat from abroad.

If you have never visited Yemen, and would consider such a trip, I urge you to do so.  The option value component of waiting for better times is dwindling rapidly.  I should add that:

1. The country cannot afford much desalination, and

2. The real problem with desalination is often pumping the “clean” water uphill and that is a major issue in mountainous Yemen.

1 Steve Sailer November 3, 2009 at 6:48 am

Yemen having a Total Fertility Rate of 6.32 babies per woman per lifetime, the seventh highest in the world, doesn’t help its water problems.

It’s funny how Third World over-population has completely disappeared off the radar screen of things that it’s fashionable to be concerned about.

2 mdb November 3, 2009 at 8:17 am

Pumping water from deep underground is the same as pumping up hill, you need big pumps. So I think the second issue is a red herring.

3 Alejandro Guerrero November 3, 2009 at 9:05 am

Thanks for sharing this post, Tyler. It made me a) want to go to Yemen, b) sad and c) urge to write a letter to the WTO in order to campaign for the free traffic of qat.

Do we have qat in the West?

4 Jeremy November 3, 2009 at 10:28 am

Steven, the problem you will find is that qat farmers value the water more (will pay more for it) than almost anyone else. So if the ones who “truly values its worth” are the ones who will pay the most for it, it will still end up growing qat. Allowing free trade in qat would reduce the price and at least reduce the use of marginal land for qat growth.

The problems of qat chewing are well known in Yemen. The government has made a big push to reduce qat use. And it’s not just at the top; my basketball coach would bench anyone who had chewed recently because he knew it reduced their energy. It suppresses appetite and makes people lethargic, and it is generally harmful to the economy and people’s health. However, it is a deeply entrenched social custom, so much so that gathering with friends for a daily qat chew is the center of many people’s lives. Banning qat would be harder and less effective than prohibition was here, especially given the limits of government control in many areas.

Tyler, it sounds like you have visited Yemen; I grew up there, and would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to visit. It is a long flight, and travel in country is slow on the mountain roads, so plan to spend at least a few weeks there to really appreciate it. The country is beautiful in a unique way, and even with increasing access to modern amenities it feels like a very old place. Trades and crafts shown in museums in the rest of the middle east are still practiced in the old city of Sana’a and in the villages and towns of the rest of the country.

5 David Zetland November 3, 2009 at 11:47 am

I have also visited Yemen, and it’s one of the top five countries I’ve ever seen. (The food is amazing! A mix of Arabic and Indian…)

It’s in a hot dry place, there are many people, and they like qat (I tried it. boring, but VERY central to their culture — in the same way as Andean use of coca leaf…)

OTOH, their troubles with water are entirely to do with poor property rights. The central government is not very central and certainly not effective, so there’s little to be done with property rights. The “solution” will probably involve the qat farmers taking over local water supplies, giving enough for “base human needs” (20 lt/cap/day) and then controlling extraction so they can stay in business.

Oh, and remember that a lot of the qat ends in Somalia — a place that’s even more lawless!

6 larry November 3, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Tyler, when did you visit Yemen last? Do you think much has changed?

7 TheDarkPassenger November 3, 2009 at 1:03 pm

<Humor On>Every time I hear a story about Yemen, I can’t help but think of this Onion article about an aggrieved blues musician and that nation: </Humor Off> But seriously, I hope that they’re able to sort their water situation out. Water shortages and deserts do not mix.

8 rip November 3, 2009 at 2:40 pm

qat, the scrabble player’s favorite drug.

9 R. Richard Schweitzer November 3, 2009 at 5:40 pm

There is a device known as a “Water Ram” which absent freezing can lift water to any height without use of other than natural flow power (such as tidal currents, stream flows, etc).

One solution is to raise sea water to elevations for desalinization via sunlight.

Hey, in Tierra del Fuega, they were catching water from fog up in the mountains on nets and condensing it to flow down to villages. They let the systems deteriorate and went back to hauling in water.

I would not be surprised if a group assembled gangs of Rams to lift enough water up high into a reservoir for electric power to be generated by that same water’s descent.

If that were done, there could be power for desalinization.

10 iolanthe November 3, 2009 at 8:17 pm

Interestingly enough, the Qat tree has been planted here in Perth quite some decades ago as an ornamental tree as it likes the hot dry summers. Its drug use went entirely un-noticed until about a decade ago when Somali refugees started to arrive and found the stuff literally growing on trees. Initially home owners didn’t have any problem giving a branch to well mannered Somalis who asked but then more and more started to ask and then turned up and got stuck into the trees without asking and hand drawn maps of where to find Qat trees are circulating in the Somali community. Pretty well anyone who had a Qat tree has now had it removed.

11 dieter November 4, 2009 at 11:29 am

Judging by the comments, yes, Third World over-population has completely disappeared off the radar screen of things that it’s fashionable to be concerned about.

Overpopulation became fashionable as a topic as we recognized that resources are actually limited and that technology will not provide some limitless Jetsons-Utopia. That was in the 70ies and 80ies. But the issue has lost its novelty.

Everybody is aware of the problem, but what can you do? When the issue is raised, the general response seems to be that education of women is key.

Paternalistic recommendations to reduce population growth have faced some backlash from lunatic dictators. Basically, the Yemenites have to figure this out for themselves and take some kind of action.

12 Isaac Crawford November 4, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Re: kidnapping in Yemen

I never felt as though I was in danger in my time in Yemen, and I’m a big, goofy looking white guy. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of those kidnappings occurred in a handful of places (Shebwa, etc.) and AMericans at least are not able to go to those places. When people were kidnapped, it was almost always a tribal issue NOT some sort of Al Queda thing. Tribes essentially try to blackmail the government so they can get relatives released from jail, jobs, etc. With very few exceptions, al hostages have been treated very well. A handful of us at the Arabic school were only partly kidding when we said that we hoped to be kidnapped…

The “reunification” of north and south is an ongoing issue in Yemen. Instead of a unification, it essentially became the north taking over the south. Sweet government and military jobs have been given to folks with connections with northern tribes and they have all but dominated the political landscape across the south. There are ongoing protests and unrest across the south, we’ll see if it erupts into outright rebellion… Salah’s government would be hard pressed to maintain tribal backing if there were armed conflicts in the north and south.

Qat is considered a schedule one drug and is therefore illegal in the US. From what I gather, this has more to do with the potential for refining into a more powerful drug than how it is used by the Yemenis. I doubt that any customs official could recognize the various types even if they found some…

Isaac Crawford

13 Hussein November 18, 2009 at 1:01 am

Hi, my name is Hussein Sharif and I am of Yemen decent. My parents moved to the U.S. before I was born. I was born in Dearborn, MI, where in fact there is a big Yemeni community here. The reason I am posting this comment is because I read some of the things you guys were discusing in regards to Yemens problems. Especially with this “gat” and the water issues. I just wanted to say thank you all for your concern, and I wish there is something that I can do to try to help with these issues but I don’t know how. I know a lot of Yemeni people whom have complaining about this issue for years but can’t seem to find a solution. I visited Yemen after I graduated back in 2002 and I was shocked at the way peoples lives revolved around gat. Also, to grow the gat, you need lots and lots of water, I don’t know how much exactly but a farmer told me it usually needs three times more water than fruits, and vegetables. Many people, from the town where my parents came from in Yemen, told me that there town/village is very dry in the recent years. I witnessed acers of farm land that was dry, and the few areas that were fertile the routhless and welthy where diging deep wells and pumpeing water out to water to grow the gat, and charging the other farmers a rate per hour to pump water into their fields. I told many of the farmers that they should be ashamed of theirselves and for their actions, but they would say there is nothing else they can do “the only thing we can profit on is from growing and selling gat”, they said “the government will not help them financially to grow fruits and vegtables, and the profit margin will not be enough to support theirselves or their familys”. I don’t know who you are, what your intentions are, or your purpose, but I feel you are trying to better the situation in Yemen, and if there is anything in my power that I can do to help you help the people of Yemen consider me in. This is my first time visiting your website feel free to e-mail me. Thank You for your time.

14 ASDJF February 3, 2010 at 4:48 pm


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