Qat planting leads Yemen to a food crisis [Archives:2008/1165/Front Page]

June 19 2008

By: Hamed Thabet
SANA'A, June 18 ) Yemen is at the threshold of starvation and could probably face a significant food crisis within the next five years unless farmers stop growing qat and adopt modern agricultural techniques, says Ismail Muharam, director of the General Authority for Agricultural Research.

The Yemeni government, particularly the Ministry of Agriculture, is aware that the most efficient way to save and protect the nation from hunger is to promote a renaissance in its own agricultural industry by growing fruit, vegetables and other crops instead of qat, Muharam adds.

It's currently impossible to dispense with outside wheat and grain donations. According to Muharam, “We're trying to be self-sufficient, but this will take at least 10 years and will only happen if – and only if – we get rid of qat and use efficient methods of agriculture.”

Noting that the current global food shortage is affecting many world nations, Khalid Sa'eed, director of the World Bank at the Ministry of Planning, explains that Yemen's increasing dependence on outside food supplies has been exacerbated by climate change, population growth and traditional irrigation methods.

During the past two years, there was a 75 to 92 percent gap between consumption (needs) and production of wheat. Muharam points out that Yemen could produce a hundred-fold more than what it is now – but only if there's a proper system in place and the country stops growing qat.

Yemen's wheat imports have doubled since 2004, while domestic grain production is providing local markets with approximately 8 percent of the total market demand for grains, Muharam explains.

He adds that qat is taking up 141,000 hectares out of 1.5 million hectares of fertile land, whereas wheat takes up only 100,000 to 140,000 hectares.

Grain production in the past two years was between 600,000 and 800,000 tons, while vegetables were 865,000 tons per year, fruit was 900,000 tons and coffee was 18,000 tons. If food prices continue rising, Yemenis won't have anything to eat in the next five years.

“We're late in solving the food crisis, but it's not too late. There must be a practical law to stop poor irrigation and limit the growing of qat,” Muharam says, adding, “The Agriculture Ministry is responsible for this and must start working to find something.”

Poor farming techniques

There are many reasons for this current food crisis. For instance, many Yemeni farmers use traditional agricultural methods, particularly regarding irrigation, in addition to the fact that the quality of their products isn't good. Only a few farmers use new methods of irrigation and agriculture. Another problem is that each Yemeni annually consumes between 120 and 150 cubic meters of water, Muharam adds.

On the other hand, measures have been enacted to help improve grain production, including using genetically modified crops, improving irrigation, providing farmers harvesting and extension services and cultivating new lands for agricultural purposes. However, the primary risk facing domestic grain production regards the availability of water resources and rainfall, Sa'eed adds.

The Yemeni government must provide new agricultural materials that can be used to preserve water, as well as its quality. While these are available on the market, only a few can obtain them because they're expensive, Muharam says.

The other main problem in Yemen is lack of water and fertile soil for agriculture, as most farmers prefer growing qat instead of other crops, which would bring in greater income.

Yet another problem is that homes are being built on agricultural land and destroying it. It should be kept in mind that not all lands are fit for agriculture and those that are must be preserved, Muharam stresses.

The debate on qat cultivation and its role in supplanting food crops recently has resurfaced and fueled resistance from a society that views the controversial narcotic as a traditional necessity.

Because they fear for the future, farmers' production of fruits, vegetables and coffee has increased; however, wheat and grains remain the same – and are even decreasing – whereas qat is increasing.

The current drought is raising concerns among Yemeni farmers for this summer's agricultural season, in which rainfall usually is expected at the beginning of April in order to start planting, but this year's lack of rainfall will affect their production.

Grains constitute 50 percent of Yemen's agricultural production, with Hodeidah, Dhamar and Hajjah governorates leading the way, depending on rainfall to play a prime factor in determining the quantity of output, Muharam notes.

World Bank support to Yemen

The World Bank and the Ministry of Planning have completed negotiations, with additional financing grant documents being submitted to executive directors within the Yemeni government, and the funds for improving agriculture will be delivered to Yemen in a week.

The World Bank's project development seeks to improve the range of services and economic opportunities available to the poorer segments of Yemen's population through conducting community development, microfinance and capacity-building programs.

The additional World Bank financing will scale up activities in components 1 and 3 of the Social Fund for Development's project, with these activities being implemented under two new components, 4 and 5, as described below.

Component 4 involves community-based labor-intensive work. This component is expected to distribute $900,000 in cash for improved agricultural work to between 8,000 and 9,000 households in Yemen's most seriously affected communities. Sa'eed adds that it's also acceptable to distribute cash to help mitigate the impact of increased food prices through temporary employment opportunities.

The program also will provide basic infrastructure needed in these communities in the fields of irrigation, harvesting water, soil production, rehabilitating agricultural terraces, maintaining and improving dirt road access to villages, streets and road paving, forestation and other types of labor-intensive work based on each community's demands and priority needs, Sa'eed noted.

Component 5 involves capacity building of the Social Welfare Fund by supporting a national survey to identify the poorest and most vulnerable elements of Yemeni society in order to improve the program's targeting and expand it.

This component also will complete a revised targeting system increasing the share of cash distributed the poorest beneficiaries in an effort to improve the program's ability to reduce poverty immediately.

Support to the Social Welfare Fund will complement the technical assistance being provided by the European Commission. Certainly, there will be more donations to Yemen in the future to assist it in its food crisis.

Earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates donated 500,000 tons of wheat for poor families. This wheat will be distributed to the poorest families, who will be chosen from a list of the most needy to be compiled very soon, Sa'eed concluded.