Why is Yemen At The Brink of a Famine?

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Image Credits to Mohammed Awadh

Almost two years after the signing of a voluntary accord to achieve peace in Yemen, the Independent reported an airstrike in the Hajjah governorate killed at least seven children and two women on July 12, 2020. Despite the Saudi-led coalition’s announcement of a temporary ceasefire in light of the pandemic, the coalition and the Houthis have continued to engage in attacks. 

While arms sales have not been affected by the pandemic, Oxfam International reported that hunger-linked deaths due to COVID-19 border and supply route closures have only increased in Yemen. Now, in a nation dependent on commercial food imports and international humanitarian aid amidst a long-drawn conflict, the World Food Program (WFP) records that over 20 million Yemenis find themselves food insecure. 

In the June 2020 edition of their emergency dashboard, WFP announced that they need $2.5 billion to prevent a famine–characterized by starvation, death, and extreme malnutrition levels. However, this politicization of aid could worsen the situation, even if the international donor community raises the required amount by the end of 2020. 

Since 2015, Al Jazeera disclosed that the war between the coalition and the Houthis has internally displaced nearly 3 million Yemenis via port closures, air raids, and cluster bombings. Ansar Allah is a rebel group known as the “Houthis” that seized the capital city, Sana’a, in 2015, following a military coup against the then president, Adbrabbuh Hadi. Today, the group is operational along the northwest border: Sa’ dah, Ibb, Taizz, and Al-Bayda, which are home to Yemenis who suffer from acute malnutrition and excess mortality, as identified by Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET). 

The overlap between the regions reporting the highest conflict activity and food insecurity reaffirm that the risk of famine is man-made. 

Twenty-five percent of Yemenis reside in the severely food insecure regions of Sa’ dah, Al-Bayda, and Hajjah. These are also the most targeted locations, with over 5000 total airstrikes having occurred in Sa’dah alone. The Yemen Data Project, an independent effort aimed at maintaining accountability in this war, reported that despite the heightened vulnerability of civilians due to the pandemic, attacks on both military and non-military sites grew this year.

Even prior to this conflict, Yemen was the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula. “We’ve been there since the late 1960s, feeding around a million people and running nutrition programs to combat childhood malnutrition and stunting,” Annabel Symington, Head of Communications, WFP, Yemen, said.  

Local organizations also struggle to receive monetary and food donations for their aid programs.

“Today, we are feeding 13 million people. It is WFP’s largest operation in the world. Childhood malnutrition has soared–stunting has increased exponentially every year. The war is the main driver of food insecurity in Yemen,” Symington said. Stunting, characterized by low height-for-age, affects the mental, physical, and cognitive development of a child and is mainly caused by poor nutrition intake. 

In June 2018, the coalition launched its most massive attack in the port city of Hodeidah. Home to over 600,000 people, it has been used extensively for maritime aid imports. The United Nations (UN) had warned that attacking the port city would push more Yemenis into mass starvation. 

The coalition sought to recapture this critical port, claiming that the attack on Hodeidah would dislodge the Houthis and their supply of funds and ammunition from Iran. However, threatening starvation and aid supply to vulnerable populations amidst conflict is a violation of international humanitarian law. Following the attack in June, the coalition and the Houthis signed the Stockholm Agreement, as detailed by the American Society of International Law, in December 2018. The pact would lead to a ceasefire in the port cities of Hodeidah, Salif, and Ras Issa, allowing open humanitarian corridors to ensure the country’s supply of humanitarian relief. 

Local organizations also struggle to receive monetary and food donations for their aid programs. Fatik al-Rodaini, the founder of Mona Relief, recounts that when he started his food distribution program for internally displaced people in 2015, Western Union blocked him. He was unable to receive any donations until he set up an official organization to receive international funding. 

Dr. Aisha Jumaan, the founder of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, also commented that blockades have made it increasingly difficult to reach vulnerable populations. “We had medicine donated to YRRF, which took over six months to get to Yemen, followed by a two-month delay at the port. By the time we were able to deliver to the cancer centers, some of the medicines had only one month before the expiry date,” Dr. Jumaan said via email.   

Yemenis protest the continued blockade in the city and criticize the UN for its silence over Saudi’s aggression in cutting off supplies of aid and carrying out nearly 1800 airstrikes, as recorded by the Yemen Data Project. The U.S., U.K., and France are equally responsible for thousands of civilian deaths that could not have occurred without their military support to the coalition. In May 2017, CNBC also revealed that the US-Saudi Arabia weapon deal will contribute $350 billion by 2027.

The Houthis are also complicit in committing human rights violations, especially to non-military zones, including food stocks. Amidst crippling food shortages, the National also reported that the Houthis bombed a silo that was home to 51,000 tons of wheat in May 2019. Later, in June, David Beasley, executive director of the WFP, also told The Guardian that 66% of staff monitoring visits were blocked, perhaps to conceal the diversion of food aid.

It is easy to assume that Yemen’s weakening agricultural sector and depreciation of the Yemeni Rial (1 USD = 250.35 YR) are dwindling efforts to restore acceptable levels of food security amongst civilians. Before the war, “Yemen was importing 70-80% of its commercial food, sold in the markets. With the war, the inability to import agricultural inputs at an affordable rate and the lack of other employment opportunities have led to a total economic collapse,” Symington said.

Consistent attacks on farms and water resources and land-mined plantations also limit annual water sources to 86 cubic meters per person and a decreased cropland productivity of 76% between 2014-17, as noted by the World Bank. In 2017, The Guardian also recorded that coalition warships also destroyed more than 250 fishing boats in the Red Sea. 

Since clean water has been so hard to access, Mona Relief started a project in March 2020 that delivers 30,000 liters of water daily. “I don’t think the government can provide people with even basic amenities or pay them monthly salaries. After more than five years of the ongoing war, the government is unable to do anything for their people,” al-Rodaini said via an email interview. 

YRRF’s course of work, however, has been altered by the pandemic and increased fuel prices. “The mountainous regions, home to tens of thousands of settlements, are particularly hard to reach. Here, we deliver supplies to homes or invite people to a central location where we distribute food while wearing masks and social distancing,” Dr. Jumaan said.

WFP, with its local partners and other UN agencies, map vulnerability by conducting door-to-door surveys on nutrition indicators and talking to families. A similar, monthly, over-the-phone monitoring system also exists. “We also work at the front lines; every time there is a new displacement, we also dispatch a physical team that conducts needs assessments and provides culturally appropriate, non-perishable food items to the IDP, until they are relocated to the settlement. Here, we require that all parties under conflict respect their obligations under humanitarian law and facilitate our access to those areas. In this way, we ensure that food assistance is based on need and need alone,” Symington said.   

While on-site relief efforts are striving to reach displaced people with the humanitarian aid they need, the global community must strengthen protections against the politicization of food and medical aid. On humanitarian grounds, the UN and other parties in the conflict must revisit the Stockholm Agreement to prioritize Yemeni lives and pull the country out of an impending danger of a famine before it is too late.