World Food Programme food distribution in 2016 in Raymah, a governorate in Yemen. Photo by: Julien Harneis / CC BY-SA

NEW YORK — While the United Nations is warning that Yemen faces a serious famine risk, restricted humanitarian access means it is difficult to get an accurate assessment of the situation, according to international humanitarian groups operating in the region.

“Today there is absolutely no study able to show there is a famine in Yemen. No accurate survey in Yemen can prove there is famine, because there is no way to do it [the data collection], because of lack of access,” Caroline Seguin, a Médecins Sans Frontières operations manager for the region, told Devex.  “There is food in Yemen. The markets have food. What is difficult for the population is the inflation.”

The World Food Programme said last week that the country’s escalating civil conflict and deteriorating economic conditions could push an additional 3.5 million people to the brink of famine.

The U.N. declares famine based on a technical calculation that must show at least 1 in 5 households face an extreme lack of food, at least 2 people out of 10,000 are dying each day, and more than 30 percent of children under 5 are suffering from acute malnutrition.

“The likelihood of a declaration of famine is hard to say. The issue is being able to provide, and have the necessary access to be able to fully verify all of the information that is needed for a declaration of famine,” said Lorraine Marulanda, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Region for the British Red Cross. “That has been one of the great difficulties working in Yemen. It all depends on access to the community.”

Approximately 8 million people in Yemen — or nearly a third of the population — are considered severely food insecure and entirely dependent on humanitarian aid.

Lack of humanitarian access, meanwhile, has deteriorated over the last several months, following an onset of fighting in the port city of Hodeida, according to Suze van Meegen, a protection and advocacy officer for the Norwegian Refugee Council. 

In some cases, access challenges have pushed humanitarian actors to spend the majority of their time navigating bureaucratic roadblocks.

“The constraints are not so much geographic as bureaucratic. The paperwork required by authorities is extensive and we are very restricted in where we can go,” van Meegen said.

The Red Cross pulled back on some of its support to Yemen a few months ago because of security threats. Eleven Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers have been killed since the conflict first escalated in 2015, according to Marulanda.

The U.N. Children’s Fund also briefly suspended cash aid to Yemen this month, following pressure from the Houthi rebels in the country’s northern region.

In urban areas, van Meegen has recently seen an uptick in begging, stockpiling of food, and Yemenis discussing leaving the country — something she has previously not heard from them. The situation is far worse in remote areas.

“In rural areas, the conditions are abysmal. It is a real kick in the guts to see — people living in makeshift tents, with no water, in really horrendous conditions. It is not hard to see why cholera is likely to ramp up again,” she said.

“There are whole villages that have migrated together. Nobody is working, because there are no jobs, and they have sold every possible item they can. People have said that, ‘if we don’t get food from humanitarian agencies, we don’t eat.’ They are entirely, 100 percent, dependent on aid.”

Van Meegen said if a famine declaration were made, it could serve as a political push to ease access constraints.

“Confirming the existence and extent of famine is made incredibly difficult. Famine is determined on the basis of specific scientific measures that are difficult for us to confirm without better access,” she explained.

“I hope there would be more of a push on the political side to actually acknowledge that humanitarian aid is barely keeping people alive, so it is time for the governments that are fueling and funding the war to question their involvement.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.