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Yemen Battles Hunger While Struggling with Multiple Crises

  • Patrick deHahn

A woman holds her malnourished child at a feeding center at al-Sabyeen hospital in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, June 20, 2012.

A woman holds her malnourished child at a feeding center at al-Sabyeen hospital in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, June 20, 2012.

Tucked away in the corner of the Arabian Peninsula and somewhat obscured by surrounding Persian Gulf countries, Yemen is struggling with multiple crises: If an ongoing uprising and endless clashes between Yemen’s security forces and al-Qaida militants weren’t enough of a challenge for the impoverished nation, nearly half of Yemen’s people are going hungry, with many facing the danger of starvation.

The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that nearly 10 million Yemenis are “food insecure.” They fall into two categories - five million are classified as “severely food insecure,” that is, those who are unable to buy or grow food themselves, and another five million who are “moderately food insecure,” that is, they are at risk of going without food due to rising food prices and the ongoing civil conflict. Combined, they account for 44.5 percent of Yemen’s population of close to 25 million.

Children are particularly vulnerable. The WFP reports that half of Yemen's children are chronically malnourished and that one out of ten does not live to reach the age of five.
The picture is one of a country on the brink of a disastrous and rapid decline into humanitarian crisis.

Such emergency levels of chronic malnutrition, according to the WFP, are second globally only to Afghanistan. In its assessment of the situation, the organization characterizes “the picture [as] one of a country on the brink of a disastrous and rapid decline into humanitarian crisis.”

Compounding the problem is a lack of sufficient water and sanitation. Geert Cappelaere, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) country representative for Yemen, says that half the Yemeni population doesn’t have access to clean water supplies or adequate sanitation.

“The situation is worsening,” Cappelaere told VOA, “a third of Yemen’s water supplies are not working, as a result of long-term depletion of water resources, drought, poor electricity supplies and disruption of water points, stemming from the continued conflict and lack of maintenance.”

Cappeleare pointed out that UNICEF has set up feeding centers and is working to improve water sources. It has also trained community volunteers to work with Yemen’s hungry. The United Nations World Food Program has committed $207 million for food projects in the country, but Cappelaere said this was not enough and that more international aid is severely needed.

A man carries food aid provided by the Red Crescent Society in Sanaa July 2, 2012.

A man carries food aid provided by the Red Crescent Society in Sanaa July 2, 2012.

Getting aid to the hungry

Care International, International Medical Corps, Islamic Relief, Mercy Corps, Merlin, Oxfam and Save the Children have joined together to form a coalition to combat Yemen’s massive hunger problem through a coordinated aid effort for the country.
Jerry Farrell, Save the Children’s country director for Yemen, told VOA that there is a difference between a food crisis and hunger.

“This is not a food crisis. There is plenty of food in the markets, with the exception of Abyan, the scene of recent fighting,” Farrell said. The problem is that people either lack the money to buy food or are unable to travel to markets.

In order to avoid undermining local markets, Save the Children and other organizations in the coalition are distributing food vouchers or cash to needy families.

Farrell said aid organizations face tremendous challenges in Yemen. First, donor funding doesn’t come close to matching Yemen’s needs and the monies that are available don’t reach the country fast enough. “Donor funding is too slow,” he said. “What should take weeks takes months in terms of the approval and funding process.” In some areas, he added, access is limited or cut off altogether.

Farrell believes that the key to these challenges lies in communication: “There is very limited, accurate information about the needs in Yemen,” he said. “The NGOs wind up conducting their own assessments. This costs time and money, funds that would be better used in developing and implementing humanitarian programs.”

International donors

Aid groups have persuaded individual countries to join in the effort. The United Arab Emirates has donated $5 million. Saudi Arabia has promised $3.25 billion to help Yemen improve infrastructure and security, which will help the hungry reach marketplaces. The European Union has contributed $32 million to Yemeni aid efforts, while India has recently offered to donate food assistance consisting of packages of rice.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has recently increased its humanitarian assistance to Yemen. In early June, it allocated an additional $6.5 million, bringing the humanitarian assistance total by the U.S. to $80 million in 2012.

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