With the world’s media attention focused on Yemen’s fight against Al-Qaeda, you would probably be forgiven for not knowing that Yemenis are facing the worst hunger crisis since records began. The term ‘food insecurity’ is increasingly being associated with the once self-sufficient but improvised Yemen. In fact over 44% of Yemen’s population will face a lack of food to eat this year alone and the UN says that 5m Yemenis are considered “extremely food insecure”. The causes of this crisis range from a lack of political stability caused the 2011 revolution, failure to control and plan on behalf of the Yemeni government and the inability of donors states such as the US to view Yemen beyond the ‘terrorism goggles’.
Yemen’s Food Crisis: 10 Million Starving
As it currently stands there are no two ways about it, Yemen is no longer on the brink of a catastrophic food crisis, but rather is now in the midst of a food catastrophe. Oxfam last September warned that Yemen was at breaking point, today one can freely admit that Yemen has broke. For example in al Hodeidah and Hajjah, one in three children are malnourished, which is double the standard emergency level. While the UN estimates that 267, 000 Yemeni children are facing life threatening levels of malnutrition. Yemen’s food crisis presents a number of challenges to Yemenis across the political, economical and social spectrum. The previously already poor are on the verge of death, the once slim middle class are finding it hard to pay for life necessities, whilst the rich and often elite, find it much easier to spend their wealth. But it is children who bear the brunt of Yemen’s food price escalation, as mothers are reportedly taking their children out of school to beg on the streets.
But Yemen’s food crisis does not only represent a threat to Yemenis, but much more importantly it represents a threat to various actors in the region and the wider world, ranging from neighbouring oil-rich, but moral-poor Saudi Arabia to the ever-more self-interested United States. This is because Yemenis across the country but particularly in the South have lost faith and trust in their government; beyond this they are no desperate for any support from anyone willing to help them. When the central government is unable to provide for its people, help reduce inflation and meet the most basic of security, extremist organisations such as Ansar al-Sharia are monopolising on the dire economic reality by providing the most basic of needs including food and in turn gain their trust. Although practicality dictates that these extremist operations are some-what limited to the more lawless areas of Yemen, the fact remains that central government seem unable, unwilling and incapable of forming a comprehensive response to the immediate food catastrophe.
The situation is compounded by the hundreds of thousands of Internally Displaced People in the southern part of Aden and Abyan as a result of the war against Al-Qaeda. Not to mention that at the same time, tens of thousands of refugees from the Horn of Africa are arriving on Yemen’s shores. The UN Envoy to Yemen, Jamal Ben Omar said that Yemen’s situation is complicated on many levels; as each day passes the complications continue to violently combine to the detriment of Yemen’s most hungry.
Putting the seriousness of the matter into context, 10 million people visited London this summer for the 2012 Olympics, the same amount are expected to starve this year in Yemen. Aside from the people’s desperation potentially leading to extremism, the humanitarian consequences of such a catastrophe would be unprecedented in the Arab region. Hence the imperative of response mounted by international community. For example, the UK have announced they will provide £28m to towards combating the crisis but this still this falls short of the £90m promised they promised. Additionally the EU has committed an additional €5m but this remains insufficient. Although significant funds totaling $4bn were pledged at the Friends of Yemen meeting in May, these pledges urgently need to materalise and turned into tangible humanitarian aid to keep people alive, as people cannot survive on promises. The UN says it needs $591 million in aid to meet current needs but has it has received less than half that amount. Whilst the next Friends of Yemen conference has been delayed till the end of the day, donors must respond now before the crisis further deepens.
Yemen’s diaspora community has also been active in helping to alleviate the crisis. So far the British-Yemeni community has successfully sent 40 tones of food; clothing and medicine to help people displaced from Abyan and has raised over £250,000 for Islamic Relief’s Yemen appeal. Further to this, the newly minted Yemen Relief and Development Forum, a UK-based umbrella charity, has also launched a campaign to raise money for food relief but its effectiveness is limited due to the proper lack of media coverage. Oxfam who, last month issued a joint appeal with Islamic Relief to raise $38m for the emergency relief of 5m people, has even admitted that Yemen’s plight is not emotionally appealing enough for people to give money. Joy Singhal, the manager of Oxfam’s humanitarian response in Yemen said that “It is not a crisis like the tsunami in Indonesia or the earthquake in Haiti. Yemen is one of two or three Arab states in the Middle East considered to be a middle-income area because it isn’t in the media”.
With the lack of media attention, the international community and aid agencies have no choice but to increase their efforts in combating Yemen’s food crisis, whilst ensuring that they do not fall into the trap of viewing Yemen within the security spectrum. Yemen’s new ‘unity’ government is currently weak; overall international support is lacking, whilst figures from the past such as Ali Abdullah Saleh continue to stand in the shadows, any policy which places terrorism and security concerns over the dire humanitarian situation would not only be a catastrophe for the starving Yemeni people, but a catastrophe for the security interests of the international community.
Yemen is facing an increasingly complex and deteriorating humanitarian situation that is leaving many families in a hunger trap and absolute poverty. Exacerbated by political and civil unrest since January 2011, new shocks to the already critically food insecure country have put more than half of the country’s population of 24 million at risk. Soaring food and fuel prices and the breakdown of social services have meant that the thousands of people who were on the brink of food insecurity and malnutrition before 2011 have now been pushed into more critical circumstances, widening the hunger gap.
In mid-2011, the conflict escalated in the southern governorate of Abyan, which led to the displacement of over 100,000 persons to Aden. In addition, over 400,000 internally displaced persons and war-affected individuals in Yemen’s northern region continue to be in dire need of emergency assistance. Today, 22 percent of the population requires external food assistance, nearly double the number in 2009.
With almost five million people unable to produce or buy sufficient nutritious food the situation is critical. More than half of Yemen’s children are chronically malnourished and one out of ten does not live to reach the age of five. Such emergency levels of chronic malnutrition are second globally only to Afghanistan; the proportion of underweight children is the third highest in the world after India and Bangladesh.
Besides civil unrest, a variety of internal and external factors are putting further strain on Yemen’s limited resources. In addition to the food, fuel and financial crises that have led to an increase in poverty to an estimated 43 percent, the 6-year conflict in north-western Sa’ada governorate has displaced some 350,000 people and affected many more. In addition, thousands of refugees continue to cross the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa each year. The dire situation is further compounded by climate change, water scarcity, general insecurity and limited access to basic services.