Yemen's qat farmers were my first thought after reading about new research on California almond farming, reported yesterday in Forbes by Mallory Pickett. Researchers at Eastern Kentucky University stumbled across the discovery that in California 23,000 acres of 'natural' land -- e.g., forests, wetlands and grasslands -- were converted to water hogging almond orchards during the years 2007-2014.
It's even worse than it sounds once you drill down into the report, titled In The Midst Of Drought, California Farmers Used More Water For Almonds.
Qat is a water-hogging cultivated plant that Yemenis love to chew for its mildly narcotic properties. Because large parts of the country are water-stressed, this means Yemenis are quite literally qat farming themselves to death -- or, as Foreign Affairs put it in 2013, they've chewed Yemen dry:
In little over a decade, Sana’a, Yemen, may become the world’s first capital to run out of water. Failed governance and environmental mismanagement share some of the blame for drying up the city. But there is also a more surprising culprit: a national addiction to qat, a narcotic that is incredibly water-intensive to cultivate.
If current trends continue, by 2025 the city’s projected 4.2 million inhabitants will become water refugees, forced to flee their barren home for wetter lands. In preparation, some officials have already considered relocating the capital to the coast. Others have proposed focusing on desalination and conservation to buy time.
As policymakers butt heads over the best course for Yemen, the dwindling water supply is already leading to instability: according to Al-Thawra, one of the country's leading newspapers, 70 to 80 percent of conflicts in Yemen’s rural regions are water-related.
And across the country, Yemen’s Interior Ministry estimates, water- and land-related disputes result in about 4,000 deaths each year -- 35 times the number of casualties in the deadliest al Qaeda attack in the country’s history.
THE QAT CAME BACK
The cultivation of qat, a mild narcotic plant that releases a stimulant when chewed, accounts for up to 40 percent of the water drawn from the Sana’a Basin each year, and that figure is rising. That is both because qat takes a lot of water to farm (much more than coffee, another plant that does well in Yemen’s fertile soil) and because cultivation of it increases by around 12 percent each year, according to Yemen’s Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources.
Not only is the crop drying the Sana’a Basin, it has displaced over tens of thousands of hectares of vital crops -- fruits, vegetables, and coffee -- which has sent food prices soaring.
Meanwhile, over in California:
What [geoscience researchers Watkins and Watson] found was shocking: based on their estimates, 23,000 acres of natural land have been converted to almond farms. 16,000 of those acres were land previously classified as wetlands. Additionally, some agricultural land has been converted from lower-water crops to almonds.
Overall almond acreage increased about 14% in California between 2007-2014, so Watson says based on that number you would expect about a 14% increase in irrigation needs for almonds. But because so much land was converted from natural land or lower-water crops, the irrigation increase for the almond industry was nearly twice that.
Watson and Watkins calculated that the growth of almond farms caused a 27% increase in irrigation demands for almond farms between 2007-2014 — an increase that coincides with an historic drought in California, which started in 2011 and continues to plague the state.
Truly, a toxic brew of short-sightedness, insularity and greed is feeding and even creating droughts around the world in an era when humanity can least afford it. And the suicidal almond-farming boom shows that an advanced nation such as the USA is not exempt.