Yemen's Food Crisis Fuels Instability

Politics have eclipsed a growing humanitarian issue: Yemen's food crisis. Over half of Yemenis don't have enough to eat. That's 10.6 million people.

Yemen is groaning under the weight of its problems. The economy is past collapse, it's barely even spluttering. The government exists in limbo since Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sanaa, forcing President Hadi to flee to the south.

In the background lurks the Organisation of al-Qaida al-Jihad in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP], the world's most active affiliate in the world of al-Qaida, which claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January.

But politics have eclipsed a growing humanitarian issue: Yemen's food crisis. Over half of Yemenis don't have enough to eat. That's 10.6 million people.

Yemen has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, but domestic food production can't keep up: farmers are struggling to meet demand. The country is one of the most water scarce places on earth and crops aren't getting enough rainwater, leaving limited opportunity for agriculture.

Instability and the government's decision to lift subsidies have driven up fuel prices. Without diesel, farmers struggle to power their water pumps and take food to the market. So Yemen has become dependent on imports. Some 80 per cent of food comes from outside the country's borders, including 90 per cent of wheat and all of its rice. This leaves consumers hugely vulnerable to market fluctuations.

Aisha is an Oxfam cash distribution beneficiary. Photo Credit: Rashad Saeed/ Oxfam 2012. Creative Commons

Today, although food is available, prices are unaffordable. As a result, many Yemenis no longer have a nutritious diet. William Picard of the Yemen Peace Project says: "there are no jobs available, and many Yemenis who do have jobs - including those employed by the state - aren't getting paid regularly. So a lot of them just can't afford the food that's in the markets."

But this is not a new problem. Over the past few years, around 40 per cent of Yemenis have been food insecure. Global attention peaked in 2012 with a rush of media attention. Since then the issue has dropped off the radar. But Adam Baron, of the European Council of Foreign Relations, believes the situation is worse now: "There are more beggars on the street and you do see things like stunted growth from malnutrition, especially in rural areas".

A staggering 800,000 Yemeni under-fives now suffer from malnourishment - a health issue, the results of which will be manifest for decades. Long-term effects of hunger can include learning disabilities, memory deficiency, high blood pressure and stunting.

Child malnutrition can also impact on a country's economy, hindering future development. Physical and cognitive ailments are common in nations that have witnessed large-scale hunger and this can impact on productivity. For example, Ethiopia - struck by famine in the 80s - is estimated to lose 17 per cent of GDP each year due to long term effects of child malnutrition.

A child receives nutritional supplements at a UNICEF clinic in the Mazraq refugee camp. Photo Credit: Paul Stephens for IRIN News. Creative Commons

Hospitals are expensive. But 13 million Yemenis have no choice but to drink unsafe water so it's not unusual for people to need medical attention. Robin Lodge of the World Food Programme (WFP) says: "This is having a devastating impact on Yemen's poor, catching them in a vicious cycle of drinking unsafe water, getting sick and falling into debilitating debt from medical expenses." Families are also buying food on credit, further escalating debts.

Oxfam's Tim Holmes recounts the story of Rokaya and her family who live in Al Hodeidah, on Yemen's west coast. "Five years ago, Rokaya's husband fell ill, forcing the family to sell off their livestock and use their land as collateral against a loan to pay $1,400 in medical bills."

Then at the end of last year, Rokaya's 12-year-old daughter also fell ill, driving the family into a further $230 of debt - the equivalent of five month's income. Rokaya told Oxfam: "What choice do we have. We know the water we drink is dirty, but we are thirsty".

While debt stalks some families, government inefficiency impacts on others. The state social welfare fund has made no pay-outs since early 2014, leaving many of the country's most vulnerable without support. Aid has tried to plug the gap. WFP distributes food and cash, saying they have helped hundreds of thousands, but there are concerns that aid has only reached a tiny percentage of those in need.

Oxfam's cash distribution program. Photo Credit: ECHO/ T. Bertouille, 2012. Creative Commons

The international community, however, remains distracted by the country's more dramatic problems. Baron says: "When people think of Yemen, first they think of Al Qaida; next, political crisis; hunger is about five or six on that list. They're focusing on other things." This lack of focus means donations aren't flowing. The Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan, the UN's appeal to donors in 2014, is reportedly only 56 per cent funded.

Oxfam's Holmes says: "Although funding has been slow, Saudi Arabia, the USA, UK and European Commission have led the way so far. [But] we have heard rumours that some key donors are looking at either reducing or suspending aid following the closure of the majority of diplomatic missions in the capital. It is vital that the international community does not turn its back on Yemen during this critical time."

But the political crisis is an obstacle to donations: donor states are wary of seeming as if they're taking sides - particularly now Yemen has become a playing field for a potential proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Hunger fuels upheaval

Anger in Yemen has been brewing for years. "People are frustrated", says Picard of the Yemen Peace Project. "The scarcity of food and water fuels political upheaval. Generally people focus their frustration on whoever is in charge, which means they are primed to support the various anti-state movements working in Yemen right now. Whoever is in the opposition at any given time has an inexhaustible reservoir of public anger to tap."

A close relationship exists between hunger and conflict. This was clear in the riots that convulsed a number of countries during the 2007-2008 global food price hike particularly Egypt, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Bangladesh. Food security was also at the root of the Arab spring. And Yemen's own 2011 uprising was no different; rising food costs fuelled dissent.

Last year, the World Bank published a report highlighting the link between riots and the price of food. It read: "Evidence shows that international food prices and the domestic pass through to local markets... has a significant role in all types of conflict, from interstate wars to civil wars, regime breakdowns and communal violence."

Baron agrees. He believes the food crisis makes it very easy to wage war and helps opposition groups with recruitment: "The country is now awash with potential soldiers. They'll go to the highest bidder."

A boy waits in line for food at the Mazraq refugee camp in Hajjah province by Paul Stephens for IRIN News. Creative Commons

Over the past few years, the government has proved ineffective leaving many to flounder in desperate poverty. Instead, militants have adopted the role of the caring state. There have been reports of al-Qaida buying food and clothing for struggling families in an effort to win support.

There is disagreement on how to move forward. What should the world focus on first, the food crisis or political upheaval? Although the two have become interwoven, the international community has set political stability as its primary focus.

Picard believes this is the wrong approach: "It's simply not possible to set up a stable national government from the top down in a place like Yemen." But Baron disagrees: "The political crisis needs to be solved first."


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