The World Food Program warns Yemen's already alarming hunger crisis is worsening due to ongoing conflict and a rapidly declining economy that are sending food prices soaring.
Of Yemen's population of just over 29 million people, around 21 million need humanitarian assistance. The United Nations, which considers Yemen the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, reports 16.2 million people are extremely short of food and suffering from acute hunger.
Tobias Flaemig, the World Food Program head of Research, Assessment and Monitoring in Yemen, says people are resorting to desperate measures to survive, including cutting their food intake to just one meal a day.
"We recently visited a village where families were resorting to eating leaves to survive," he said via a video link from the capital Sanaa. "Traveling to work, to reach markets or even to seek medical care is almost impossible because the cost of fuel is too high. Hunger leaves people acutely vulnerable to the various public health risks facing the country, including COVID-19, cholera, dengue, malaria."
The U.N. children's fund projects nearly 2.3 million children under age 5 will suffer from acute malnutrition in Yemen this year. Of these, it warns some 400,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition could die if they do not receive urgent treatment.
The World Food Program estimates more than five million people in Yemen are on the brink of famine. Flaemig says WFP has not yet declared a famine because specific evidence of food security, malnutrition and mortality must be collected. This, he says, is difficult to do in a conflict zone.
"The international community must not wait for such a classification in Yemen to act. People do not start dying when a declaration of famine is made. It is only their deaths that trigger a declaration," Flaemig said.
WFP provides emergency food assistance to nearly 13 million people every month. The agency has increased food aid in all famine-risk areas since the start of the year as additional funds have become available.
However, money remains in short supply, leading to cuts. For example, three million beneficiaries are receiving food rations on alternate months instead of monthly.
WFP requires $1.9 billion to run its humanitarian operation this year. It is $900 million short of this mark and is appealing to the international community to close the gap.