Market shelves are stocked, but Yemenis still starve

More than 10 million Yemenis lack adequate food and more than a quarter million children face malnutrition, but economic disruption, not food shortages, are to blame.

Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters
A man carries aid provided by the Red Crescent Society in Sanaa, on July 2. One million Yemeni children face severe malnutrition within months as families struggle to pay for food in one of the Arab world's poorest countries, the UN World Food Programme has warned.

After a year and a half of anti-government demonstrations, factional clashes, and political uncertainty, the economy of consistently impoverished Yemen has been pushed to the brink of collapse, and all but the wealthiest Yemenis are under enormous economic strain.

Coupled with rising global food prices and persistent drought in many parts of the country, Yemen is facing a hunger crisis of devastating proportion. According to United Nations estimates, more than 10 million Yemenis don’t have enough to eat, and more than 267,000 children face life threatening levels of malnutrition. But, according to humanitarian workers, there is plenty of food – there's just no money to buy it.

The crisis is, at its essence, a financial one, brought on by the near-breakdown of family support networks that many impoverished Yemenis relied on to eke out a living. And as work opportunities have dried up, Yemenis who once stretched wages to provide for vast extended families have been left struggling just to feed themselves, exhausting their savings, selling land and livestock and, increasingly, wracking up large debts just to stave off starvation. 

Despite its severity, the crisis often seems nearly invisible. In the province of Hudayda, where the UN estimates 60 percent of children are severely malnourished, merchants’ shelves are stocked. But while on the surface business seems to continue as usual, both buyers and sellers say they’ve been pushed to the brink of financial ruin.

A growing sense of desperation echoes within the busy stalls of Bab Mushraf Souq, one of the largest markets in the province’s capital. Farmers bringing their crops to market say that increases in the prices of fuel have tripled the cost of irrigating their drought-stricken fields, leaving many smaller farmers with no choice but to sell their land. Fuel prices have risen as much as 500 percent, while sugar and flour price increases top 50 percent. 

According to shopkeepers, as much as 75 percent of customers now buy goods on credit because they lack the income to pay in cash, forcing many store owners to take out loans themselves.

“We’re trapped: There are no jobs, and everything is more expensive,” says Um Mutaher Abdullah, a housewife shopping for food. “The children are asking for more food,” she adds somberly. “But there’s no money, we cannot feed them.”

Money hurdles at every turn

Laying silently in the emergency malnutrition ward of Hudayda’s Thawra hospital, 1-year-old Maram Abu Bakr weighs about six pounds – less than most infants weigh at birth. Maram's mother says that with her extended family reliant on the income of a single relative who works a low-paying job at as a gas station attendant, meals have shrunk and she’s all but lost her ability to breast feed.

Doctors at the hospital say the magnitude of the hunger crisis has left them struggling to house those coming for treatment – and those are just the ones whose parents are among the few able to scrape together enough money to cover transportation costs.

Even so, the therapeutic feeding at the hospital itself provides only fleeting relief: Doctors estimate that around a third of the children who receive treatment eventually die after returning home.

Despite pledges of humanitarian assistance from Western nations and Yemen’s oil-rich Gulf neighbors, aid agencies say their efforts to respond to the crisis have been hindered by a lack of funds. In a recent press release, aid organizations Oxfam and Islamic Relief said they needed another $38 million, while the UN is appealing for $591 million. Only 42 percent of that request has been funded. 

“We have the capacity to respond [to the crisis] – plans have been prepared and staff are ready,” says Colette Fearon, Oxfam’s country director in Yemen. “But lack of funding is severely limiting what we can do.”

Yemen remains deeply unsettled in many ways: lingering political uncertainty after a political transition, an uptick in Al Qaeda-linked attacks in major cities, and continuing factional violence in some parts of the country. The humanitarian crisis is just one of many challenges facing the country’s government and domestic and international attention seems focused on Yemen's political turmoil and local Al Qaeda franchise, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

But Yemen is also facing the growing prospect of pervasive pediatric malnutrition, which could doom a generation to impeded intellectual development and stunted growth, leaving the country grappling with the fallout of the hunger epidemic for decades to come. 

And while few dismiss the need for urgent international aid, many caution that in a country as impoverished and underdeveloped as Yemen, little will be solved by money alone.

“With foreign aid, there’s always the worry that it will end up in the hands of corrupt officials. And even if it actually goes to those who need it, its still not dealing with the root problem,” says one doctor in al-Thawra hospital, “Even more than money, we need education, we need development, we need expertise.”

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