“I think of khat as [a key part of] Yemen’s social fabric. But while it maintains a degree of social cohesion, there are many drawbacks,” said Abdulaziz al-Saqqaf, a youth activist who occasionally chews. “Within a decade Sanaa will be the first world capital to run out of water – and that’s due to khat.”
Between 1970 and 2000, the amount of land set aside for khat farming increased by nearly 1200 percent. In addition to taking up valuable arable land, the cultivation of the thirsty plant – which takes up nearly 40 percent of Yemen’s water resources – is contributing to a growing water crisis that threatens to suck the country dry.
Farmers who switch from cultivating fruits and vegetables to growing khat are driven by the high profits and strong demand for the crop. While the World Health Organization does not regard khat as seriously addictive, social pressures and psychological dependence mean that even impoverished Yemenis funnel cash into the leafy narcotic. Many families devote more money to khat than than they do to food.
The latest anti-khat campaign began on Twitter by Hind al-Eryani, a Yemeni blogger based in Beirut. But the online effort has rapidly spiraled into an initiative on the ground that’s been taken up by a number of activists, largely pulled from Yemen’s educated middle-class.