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April 05, 2024

After nine years of war, Yemen becomes another forgotten crisis

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the position of FairPlanet.

As Yemen marks the grim anniversary of nine years of war, every region in the country is dealing with crisis levels of food insecurity. By May, that is expected to escalate to "emergency" levels of hunger in many areas, as ongoing conflict has left 17.6 million people, more than half the population, dependent on food aid.

However, this support is difficult to come by these days.

After the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war, hostilities around the Red Sea and the recent US designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation are combining to pose new challenges in an already complex region.

The US designation has had a chilling effect on commercial imports, remittances and financial services. It effectively criminalised key transactions necessary for the imports Yemen relies on for 85 per cent of its food, fuel supplies and almost all medical supplies.

In Yemen, transport costs have surged approximately 400 per cent, and shipments traveling the usual route no longer have a guaranteed delivery. Aid organisations like Action Against Hunger are actively looking for alternatives to get medicines and basic supplies into Yemen, but these routes are more expensive (by plane), not very safe (by road) and involve tighter controls that are causing traffic back-ups and delays at key checkpoints in Jeddah and Djibouti.

Every day, Yemeni families struggle to secure basics like food, clean water and staples like cooking fuel, soap and other household supplies. Healthcare providers are stretched paper thin, with insufficient medicines and other supplies. 

Food is a basic human right, but in Yemen, more than 1.3 million pregnant or breastfeeding women and 2.2 million children under five are acutely malnourished and in need of treatment.

Unfortunately, many are unlikely to receive the support they need, putting them at risk of impaired physical and cognitive functioning.

The country is largely dependent on imported food, but declining currency value, rising prices, limited job opportunities and low wages have made essential foods unaffordable for most. Many families go into debt because they can’t afford even basic staples, while others limit the amount they eat and resort to food with little nutritional value. Parents - especially mothers - often go without food so that their children have something, no matter how little.

"When we notice that certain products are running out, we cut back on meals until the next food distribution. Sometimes, the family sleeps on an empty stomach," said a father of six children living in Hajjah, Yemen.

His one year old daughter, Zakia, has already become so acutely malnourished that she required special treatment. Sadly, she’s not alone since funding for aid programmes continues to dwindle.

In 2023, only 32 per cent of funding requests for hunger-related programmes were met. This year, lack of funding has forced the World Food Program (WFP) to announce a "pause" in the General Food Assistance programme, impacting 9.5 million people facing food insecurity in northern Yemen. As a result of this reduction in food assistance, hunger is expected to grow. A lack of clean water and sanitation service will make it worse.

Furthermore, while water has always been scarce in this arid climate, the conflict extensively damaged Yemen’s water and sanitation infrastructure. An estimated 15.3 million people are making do without access to clean water sources or even water purification products. Dirty water and lack of sufficient sanitation is a deadly combination, with waterborne "diseases of inequity" like cholera on the rise last year and likely to surge again with warmer weather.

And while cholera treatment is typically straightforward, without access to even basic health care, the disease can kill within hours if not treated.

In Yemen, however, there are too few healthcare facilities. Those that exist often lack enough qualified staff or supplies. Action Against Hunger has worked to overcome uncertainty in the supply of approximately 100 kinds of medicines, notably antibiotics, painkillers and antimalarials, which are supplied to 35 health centers, mobile clinics and centers for treating malnourished children.

Yet, health centers are often too far away for families to access them, making it a challenge to control disease or treat people for malnutrition. 

"Before the opening of the Duban Health Center, we had difficulty getting health and nutrition services," explained Zakia’s father. "There is no health unit near our village, and we have no money to go to hospital with our sick children. So, we just stood there, helpless and sorrowful."

All the while, the stress of living under constant pressure to meet their most basic needs - and nine years of conflict that has brought an estimated 377,000 deaths - is fueling a mental health crisis. More than a quarter of Yemenis - over eight million people - suffer from mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to surveys by Action Against Hunger and other data, the continuing conflict, forced displacement, deteriorating economic situation, poverty and food shortages are exacerbating the prevalence of mental health challenges.

Despite the scale of this public health emergency, there is no national mental health programme in Yemen. Just 10 per cent of the country’s primary health care facilities have staff trained to identify or treat mental disorders. The stigma surrounding mental health issues delays treatment and, by devaluing the related professions, discourages students from getting training to tackle these issues.

Action Against Hunger continues to operate in the country, but without a concerted effort from the international community to meet funding needs, it’s hard to imagine an end to the crisis.

A robust response can save lives and even begin to build resilience and prevent hunger. That vision seems far off today, as too many are left to fend for themselves.

Yemeni families, like Zakia and her father, are counting on the international community to not forget them.

Anne Garella is the Middle East Regional Director of Operations at Action Against Hunger. 

Image by Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger.