Yemen Tries To Break Addiction To Popular Leaf

The Gulf state of Yemen faces a raft of political and security troubles — not to mention a looming water crisis that experts say is exacerbated by the country's devotion to qat, a mildly narcotic leaf Yemenis love to chew. Growing qat is draining Yemen's scarce water supply. Recently, however, new anti-qat campaigns have begun to spring up around the country.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

Let's turn now to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf state of Yemen, which has troubles of its own: an armed rebellion, a growing al-Qaida presence, and a severe water shortage.

Experts say the water crisis at least could be eased by growing less qat. That's the leaf Yemenis love to chew for its mildly narcotic properties. A huge amount of Yemen's water supply is used to grow qat.

As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, it's a tough habit to break.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

PETER KENYON: The sounds of the World Cup soccer qualifying match emanate from a large screen television in the Black and Brown Caf� in Sana'a. The game attracts coffee drinkers and shisha smokers who enjoy flavored tobacco from the traditional Arabic water pipe.

But one thing the caf� does not attract is qat chewers. The Black and Brown Caf� doesn't allow qat on the premises, not even during conferences or weddings held in the large reception hall upstairs.

Manager Abdul Aziz(ph) says, in English, flavored by years of working in Kazakhstan, that it was a deliberate decision to swim against the tide in a country where qat is overwhelmingly accepted as the drug of choice.

Mr. ABDUL AZIZ (Manager, Black and White Caf�): You have no qat. This restaurant's - no qat. We try to help people to go out from the bad habit. I would like to see our people little bit happy. I mean, the Yemenis. For that reason, I try to help my country.

KENYON: From four to 6 p.m., prime qat chewing time, the caf� offers a 40 percent discount on food and drinks, and it stocks newspapers and has wireless Internet to attract customers.

Yemen's water and environment minister, Abdul Rahman al-Eryani, says qat is one of several causes of a water crisis that could see Sana'a become the first world capital to run out of water in the coming years. He says qat uses half the irrigation water in the country, and irrigation claims more than 85 percent of the total water supply.

Eryani says breaking the qat habit, however, will take political will and time.

Mr. ABDUL RAHMAN AL-ERYANI (Minister, Ministry of Water and Environment, Yemen): If the government is really serious about it, they should start doing this: stop subsidies for qat, that qat is like any other drug. We need a long-term program of awareness and then we have to deal with reducing the demand. I don't believe that you can fight something like this by issuing decrees or saying don't grow qat. As long as there is demand, people will grow qat.

KENYON: Another front in the battle against qat is opened in the Haraz Mountains, east of the capital. There, local leaders have made farmers a deal. If they rip out their qat plants and replace them with coffee beans, they will be guaranteed no loss of income while they make the transition, which could take several years.

This addresses a key problem. Qat is an immediate and reliable cash crop for farmers, unlike other foods which take longer to grow and are vulnerable to economic fluctuations. But officials say this admirable program is well beyond the means of the federal government to implement nationwide, even if it wanted to.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Black and Brown Caf� manager Abdul Aziz says he hopes the idea of qat-free public places will catch on with younger people who may not have developed a full-blown chewing habit yet.

Mr. AZIZ: I want to change the mentality of the businessmen in Yemen, because when they will see there is a people, there is a young generation, they like and they're ready to spend some money here and have the (unintelligible) that's good for the country. I will be happy if they will see that.

KENYON: But sitting nearby, a retired pilot, who gives his name as Captain Sheba(ph), smiles and shakes his head. He doubts if he will live to see the day when Yemenis treat qat as part of their problems instead of as a temporary solution to hardships of daily life.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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