UN raises alarm about spectre of famine in Yemen

The coronavirus pandemic in Yemen has added a new burden on top of the impact of the ongoing war, pushing more people into poverty, unable to afford food.
Friday 20/11/2020
A file photo shows displaced Yemenis receiving food supplies provided by the World Food Programme, at a school in Sana’a, Yemen. (AP)
A file photo shows displaced Yemenis receiving food supplies provided by the World Food Programme, at a school in Sana’a, Yemen. (AP)

ADEN – Millions of men, women and children in war-torn Yemen are facing famine with the UN World Food Programme (WFP), raising the alarm about “a countdown to a catastrophe.”

The United Nations humanitarian office this week released $100 million in emergency funding to seven countries most at risk of famine — Yemen, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Congo and Burkina Faso.

But David Beasley, head of the WFP, says billions in new aid are needed. Without it, “we are going to have famines of biblical proportions in 2021,” he said in an Associated Press interview last week.

The coronavirus pandemic in Yemen has added a new burden on top of the impact of the ongoing war, pushing more people into poverty, unable to afford food. At the same time, international aid funding has fallen short, weakening a safety net that keeps people alive.

Yemen is on a “countdown to catastrophe,” Beasley warned the Security Council last week.

“Famine is truly a real and dangerous possibility and the warning lights are … flashing red — as red can be,” he said.

A Yemeni woman holds her malnourished boy at a feeding center at Al-Sabeen hospital in Sana’a, Yemen. (AP)
A Yemeni woman holds her malnourished boy at a feeding center at Al-Sabeen hospital in Sana’a, Yemen. (AP)

For years, Yemen has been the centre of the world’s worst food crisis, driven by the destructive civil war between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who took over the north and the capital, Sana’a, in 2014 and a Saudi-led coalition backing the government in the south.

International aid pulled it from the edge of famine two years ago. But the threat has surged back this year, fuelled by increasing violence and a currency collapse that put food out of reach for growing numbers of people.

Donors have been wary of new funding because of corruption and restrictions that Houthis have put on humanitarian workers.

The UN had to cut in half the rations it gives to 9 million people — and faces possible cuts to another 6 million in January.

Two-thirds of Yemen’s population of about 28 million people are hungry. In the south, UN data from recent surveys show cases of severe acute malnutrition rose 15.5% this year, and at least 98,000 children under five could die of it.

By the end of the year, 41% of the south’s 8 million people are expected to have significant gaps in food consumption, up from 25%.

The situation could be worse in Sana’a and the north, home to more than 20 million people. The UN is currently conducting a similar survey there.

The main hospital in Sana’a, al-Sabeen, received over 180 cases of malnutrition and acute malnutrition the past three months, well over its capacities, according Amin al-Eizari, a nurse.

At least five children died at the hospital during that period, with more dying outside, he said.

In late 2017, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warned that Yemen was then facing “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades with millions of victims.”

He described in graphic detail “the horrors inflicted by famine on the body and on the soul,” saying as they starve, people, especially children, are likelier to fall sick or die from diseases they may otherwise have resisted.

A Yemeni child receives humanitarian aid, donated by the World Food Programme (WFP), in the country’s third city of Taez.(AFP)
A Yemeni child receives humanitarian aid, donated by the World Food Programme (WFP), in the country’s third city of Taez.(AFP)

For those who escape disease and find nothing to eat, he said, vital organs start to wither and “the body starts to devour its own muscles, including the heart.”

“When I think about what famine would mean, I am really at a loss to understand why more is not being done to prevent it,” Lowcock said.

“It is a terrible, agonising and humiliating death … Yemenis are not ‘going hungry’, they are being starved.”