Food Imports Wreck Farming and Create Famine

Charitable "solutions" make things worse.

Time Magazine recently explained how the Ethiopian agricultural system was destroyed by food aid so that the country remains in a state of perpetual famine and will need food aid to avoid starvation for the foreseeable future.  We've also discussed a German professor's computer models which demonstrate that doing actual good is very difficult even in simple economies.  Dr. Dorner's simulations showed that anything that increased population in impoverished third-world nations led to the simulated people using up ground water faster than rain replaced it; the population crashed in famine when the water ran out.

Drought Comes For Real, Not Just In Computers

The New York Times article "Thirsty Plant Dries Out Yemen" explains how too many wells pulling too much water out of the ground are about to cause a similar famine in Yemen, just as Prof. Dorner's model predicts.  The article begins:

More than half of this country's scarce water is used to feed an addiction.

Even as drought kills off Yemen's crops, farmers in villages like this one are turning increasingly to a thirsty plant called qat, the leaves of which are chewed every day by most Yemeni men (and some women) for their mild narcotic effect. The farmers have little choice: qat is the only way to make a profit.

Meanwhile, the water wells are running dry, and deep, ominous cracks have begun opening in the parched earth, some of them hundreds of yards long.

Population growth brought about by improved medical care and sanitation along with imported food is driving the problem - the population quadrupled in the last 50 years and should triple again to 60 million in the next 20 years assuming that famine or civil war don't slow things down.

There isn't much chance that human fertility will drop naturally, unfortunately.  As the Economist explains, children have positive economic value in poor, agricultural nations.  Fertility drops naturally as nations become wealthier, but Yemen is becoming poorer.

Yemen had a tradition of sustainable water use for thousands of years.  A major dam in northern Yemen was used for more than 1,000 years before it collapsed in 400AD; though that particular dam was not rebuilt, the overall system continued in effective use until very recently.

The centuries-old sustainable agricultural system fell apart in the 1960's when Yemen was flooded with cheap foreign grain.  Unable to make money growing traditional crops, farmers switched to growing the narcotic qat.  Qat needs a great deal more water than grain, so farmers started drilling new wells.

Drilling unauthorized wells was outlawed in 2002, but the government isn't able to enforce the law.  In some areas, the water table is dropping by 60 feet per year.

The Times article shows Prof. Dorner's simulations being played out for real in a different part of the world.  The Yemeni agricultural system was disrupted by cheap grain imports rather than by food aid, but the results are the same - agricultural productivity fell, population grew, and water use went up faster than rainfall could be increased.  Yemen is headed for a crisis.

This Has All Happened Before

Historical records show that Yemenis scattered all over the Middle East during the famine that came when the dam collapsed in 400AD, but that was before national boundaries were established.  It's unlikely that nearby governments would welcome hordes of starving Yemenis; they've left Palestinians festering in refugee camps for lo these many decades.  Could the international community keep 60 million Yemenis alive through food aid?  Would they?

Even if starvation could be averted, where would drinking water be found?  Lacking oil, Yemen can't afford to desalinate sea water as the Saudis do.  Recycling water takes less power than desalination, but recycling sewage has been criticized by some mullahs as being against the Koran.

The crisis could be postponed through more careful water management and a return to traditional crops, but the "qat mafia" doesn't want to give up the more profitable crop regardless of how much water is used growing it.

Water, Water Everywhere...

We're facing water shortages in California, Ethiopia, Australia, and now Yemen.  The more we hear about drought, the more likely it seems that water shortage is the real crisis, not global warming.  Indeed, that's what Bjorn Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus of development experts found.

Alas, attempting to force America's middle class back into the third world through totalitarian international "environmental" regulations seems to have more appeal than saving the lives of already-existing, but soon to starve, third worlders.  It's enough to make you wonder if, just possibly, the conspiracy theorists might possibly have a point.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments
Food aid always damages economies, even if it is truly needed. The aftermath of the Korean War illustrates this as well. If we are going to give food aid we must either charge for it or buy locally grown food at a reasonable price then give it away as well. To do otherwise destroys an area's ability to feed itself.
November 10, 2009 8:09 AM
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