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Yemenis face mass starvation admist civil war

Nicolas Martin
October 21, 2018

A civil war between Houthi rebels and a Saudi-backed government has led to spiraling food prices. As ever more people face starvation, aid groups warn the crisis could trigger the world's worst famine in 100 years.

A woman's hand holds a small malnourished child
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/XinHua/M. Mohammed

For many people in Yemen, the taste of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat has become but a distant memory. It's not that these food items can't be found at the markets, but rather that they have become costly luxury goods. Prices have skyrocketed, meaning most people can no longer afford to buy food.

"Everything has become more expensive," Mirella Hodeib of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told DW. She has been working in Yemen for over a year now, but ever since one of her colleagues was shot in April, she has not been allowed to walk around the capital city, Sanaa. Her local colleagues have told her that "the cost of rice, beans, eggs and cooking oil has risen tremendously."

Two men in Sanaa at a market stand behind piles of fruit and vegetables
While foodstuff can still be found on the streets in Yemen, their prices have become unaffordableImage: picture-alliance/Bildagentur-Online

Bombs, inflation and widespread hunger

The civil war in Yemen erupted in late 2014. Over the past three and a half years, it has escalated into a full blown proxy war, pitting Saudi Arabia and other mostly Sunni Arab states against the Houthi militia, which is backed by Iran. The Saudi-led military coalition wants to reinstate former president Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi, who was deposed by the Houthis in 2015. The Houthis control large swaths of northern Yemen, Sanaa, and the country's important port city of Hodeida, through which much aid and many food deliveries reach Yemen.

Since the beginning of the war, the Saudi-led alliance has launched 17,000 airstrikes against Houthi positions. Peace talks, originally planned for September this year, were never held. And so the bombs keep raining down, and the cost of food continues to rise. Aid agencies, alarmed by the state of affairs, have warned Yemen could face the most severe famine the world has seen in 100 years. 

Famine looms

Yemen has a population of some 30 million people. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) provides food for 8.5 million of them. Half a million children are severly malnourished, the UN has reported.

Aid agencies are warning that Yemen's already desperate situation is quickly growing even worse. "Tens of thousands of destitute families, who were barely able to buy what they needed just a few weeks ago, can no longer afford to feed themselves at all," Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, told British daily The Guardian. "We are literally looking at hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people who may not survive," Grande added. 

Earlier this week Herve Verhoosel, the senior spokesperson for the WFP, warned that, "If the situation persists, we could see an additional 3.5 million severely food insecure Yemenis, or nearly 12 million in total, who urgently require regular food assistance to prevent them from slipping into famine-like conditions." He called for extra funding to the UN and stressed that Yemen's precarious security situation made it difficult for aid to get through to those in need.

Houthis only pay fighters

Before war broke out, the state was Yemen's biggest employer. Now, however, it has largely ceased paying peoples' wages. The private sector is in tatters, and the International Monetary Fund says that Yemen's gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has more than halved in comparison to 2014. Even before fighting began, Yemen was one of the world's poorest countries.

The Houthi government pays its fighters, but not civil servants or teachers. Doctors and their staff are dependent on the support of external organizations. The fighting has damaged much of the country's sanitation infrastructure, which can rarely be rebuilt. ICRC's Hodeib says this is causing the spread of preventable diseases like cholera, diphtheria and measles.

Children lie in their hospital beds
Children in Yemen are dying of preventable diseases, such as these who have diphtheriaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/XinHua

Will more money help?

The UN is looking for new ways to fight this increasingly dire humanitarian crisis. Grande thinks it would be most effective to hand out money to impoverished families in Yemen. "This allows them to buy what they need, when they need it," she told The Guardian, adding that, "Humanitarians are looking at ways to expand cash programmes as quickly as possible." Some one million people in Yemen already receive food vouchers at present.

But Suze van Meegen of the Norwegian Refugee Council doubts more money will bring improvements. "The crisis doesn't lie with money. It lies in stopping the war," she told The Guardian. People are starving to death in "very large numbers," she said. She also criticized the British government: "There is a duplicity in the UK, for example, where the British government is providing a lot of money to help us reach people with aid but it could get more bang for its buck if it just stopped selling weapons to Saudi Arabia."

Individuals walk past a bombed-out house in Sanaa
Airstrikes have filled Sanaa with ruins and made it harder to deliver aidImage: Reuters/K. Abdullah

Britain is not the only country selling weapons to the Saudis, however. In summer US President Donald Trump reached an agreement to export several billion dollars worth of arms to the country. Germany has greened further arms shipments as well.

Hodeib stresses that aid agencies will not be able to end the humanitarian crisis. "They can neither take care of millions of hungry people in Yemen, nor single-handedly keep the country's health care sector operational." Instead, she believes that only concerted political action can bring about an end to this suffering.

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