Children face 'immediate risk of death' as famine looms in Yemen

A boy suffering from severe acute malnutrition sits on a bed at Al-Sabeen Hospital, Sana’a, Yemen. Photo by: © UNICEF/UN050318/Madhok

Nearly half a million children in Yemen are dangerously malnourished and at risk of death, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF reported on Tuesday. The figure marks a 200 percent increase from 2014, before conflict erupted in the country.

A host of factors are contributing to the dramatic food insecurity in the country, but aid organizations and analysts tell Devex that the bottom line comes down to logistics. Getting supplies into Yemen and to where they are most needed is a gargantuan task, bogged down by security challenges, fuel shortages and dilapidated infrastructure that has been all but destroyed by a two-year military campaign.

“The primary issue in Yemen is not lack of effort, money, or stuffs. The issue is the logistics of distribution,” said Elana DeLozier, a Yemen specialist and founder of The Sage Institute for Foreign Affairs.

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The latest figures place Yemen on par with Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan — four countries where a total of 1.4 million children are dangerously malnourished, according to UNICEF. Also on Tuesday, the United Nations officially declared a famine in South Sudan, where conflict has similarly hammered the economy and severely constrained aid efforts.

Yemen was food insecure well before the most recent turmoil, importing 90 percent of the food it consumes. The situation has deteriorated rapidly since August 2014, when rebels calling themselves Ansar Allah, or the Houthis, captured the capital of Sana’a. A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States, intervened in March 2015 to reinstall the internationally recognized government, but the country remains under divided control.

Earlier this month, several U.N. agencies jointly released the preliminary results of a Yemen Emergency Food Security and Nutrition Assessment finding that some 7.3 million Yemenis require emergency food assistance. Another 17 million are food insecure — or roughly two-thirds of the entire population.

The study paints a grim picture of how families are coping with shortages. Yemen’s economy has been decimated by conflict and some 50 percent of surveyed families are now buying what food they can on credit. Sixty percent of households are employing “negative coping measures” — a technical term that essentially means they are going hungry.

The World Food Programme, the major supplier of food assistance in Yemen, says it has the resources to fulfill only a fraction of the needs. “What we have been doing is barely feeding 3 million people,” said Abeer Etefa, a Cairo-based spokesperson who recently visited Yemen. “Every month we will feed 3 million people, and then the next month we look at a new 3 million people and feed them. Then we return to the first 3 million, so that we’re able to meet the needs with the limited resources that we have.”

On top of funding, delivery logistics are a major barrier to aid efforts. “There have been cases where humanitarian aid has sat at a port because gas shortages mean the trucks cannot deliver it. There are other cases where smugglers have intercepted food shipments and sold the food on the black market at higher prices,” said DeLozier. “The coalition has accused the Houthis of intercepting aid as well.”

Another major challenge has been the country’s port infrastructure. The United Nations and other aid groups coordinate shipments with the coalition, which is maintaining a Naval blockade to enforce a U.N. arms embargo. Still, the major port in Sana’a is operating well below its pre-crisis capacity.

Once supplies are on the ground, territorial control is another obstacle, as shifts in fighting are constantly rearranging the panorama of permissions required to deliver shipments. There are only a few governorates of Yemen that are truly inaccessible because of ongoing fighting, Etefa said. Still, parties to the conflict can throw up literal roadblocks to access, for example requiring clearance documents or holding convoys at checkpoints for days or weeks, such that the food needs to be unloaded to prevent spoilage.

Aid workers have at times found themselves caught up in the political crossfire. On Feb. 14, half a dozen Norwegian Refugee Council staff were detained in a Houthi stronghold after the hygiene kits they were distributed apparently had writing indicating they were gifts from Saudi Arabia, although NRC does not accept aid from the kingdom.

Human rights groups have criticized all parties to the conflict for failing to safeguard civilians. “Every day, across Yemen, civilians are killed by indiscriminate attacks by all parties to the conflict on residential areas in complete disregard of the rules of international humanitarian law,” U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said after six women and one girl were killed in an alleged airstrike in Sana’a governorate on Feb. 16. “Attacks on civilians are unjustifiable, regardless of the circumstances. Women and children in particular have been subjected to unspeakable suffering in this brutal conflict. This should stop immediately.”

Despite its military role in the conflict, the Saudi-led coalition is also one of the major providers of food and other assistance on the ground, particularly in areas under its allied control. Saudi Arabia and its largest partner, the United Arab Emirates, are the third and first largest donors to relief efforts, respectively. As the biggest donor, the UAE provided nearly $467 million in 2016.

“I can confirm the UAE is doing a lot. They've got a number of people committed to this effort full time — and I suspect entire offices of people,” said DeLozier. “They've started rebuilding before the conflict is even over. I suspect they will continue to do so well after it is over.”

U.N. agencies are currently conducting an Integrated Food Security Phase Classification survey in Yemen, according to Etefa. The results will determine whether Yemen is classified as being in famine. But just as distributing aid is a challenge, collecting the data to make the classification has been slow-going and fraught with logistical hazards.  

Official designations aside, Etefa said the need is already paramount. “Maybe we have averted the famine but the situation is hanging by a thread.”

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About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.