Half of the population of Yemen is at risk of famine and relying entirely on humanitarian aid to survive, the UN warned this week. People are struggling to access food, clean water and sanitation due to an economic crisis and an ongoing civil war, while thousands more have already died.
UN aid chief Mark Lowcock said there was a "clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine" taking over the country, and described it as "much bigger than anything any professional in this field has seen during their working lives," Reuters reported.
Around 14 million people are facing famine in the Middle Eastern country, a situation Lowcock described as "shocking", given that the UN has only declared two famines in the world within the last two decades, in South Sudan and Somalia.
The charity Save the Children estimated last year that 130 children were dying daily from extreme hunger and disease, equating to nearly 50,000 in a year, with a further 400,000 needing treatment for severe acute malnutrition last year.
Three criteria for food insecurity, acute malnutrition and mortality must be breached simultaneously for the UN to declare a famine. Lowcock said around a third of the country's districts had already surpassed or were close to reaching the thresholds for lack of food and malnutrition, but that it was more difficult to confirm death figures – that at least two in every 10,000 people were dying every day – because many were going unreported.
The crisis in Yemen has been going on for almost three years, but it hasn't yet received the international attention it deserves. But aid charities' calls for help and pleas for global attention are getting louder and louder; Oxfam says the international community "now faces the largest humanitarian crisis on the globe."
Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia and Oman at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, was already the poorest country in the region, but the civil war has exacerbated the situation. Its supply of essential goods and food (90% of which is imported) has been threatened by the destruction of ports, roads, bridges, farms, markets and warehouses.
Meanwhile, a failing economy and collapsing currency has caused the cost of basic food staples like flour, rice, salt, sugar and cooking oil to nearly double since 2015. Public sector employees haven't been paid in months or, in some cases, years, and parents are starving themselves to feed their children.
What caused the crisis?
A civil war between the rebel Houthi movement and the Yemeni government escalated in 2015 when a multinational coalition led by Saudi Arabia (and supported by the US, UK and France) intervened. It was a response to Houthi rebels having taken control of a large part of western Yemen, which forced President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee the country. What ensued was a campaign of air strikes aimed at restoring the country's government – with thousands of civilians killed and lives destroyed as a consequence.
At least 6,660 civilians were killed and more than 10,560 injured in the war between March 2015 and August 2018, but the real figure is thought to be higher, the United Nations Human Rights Office said last year. The violence, coupled with a blockage of rebel-controlled air and sea ports, has left 22 million people in need of vital aid and triggered a cholera outbreak that has affected 1.1 million.
What are people's lives like?
Sukaina Sharafuddin, 29, who works for Save the Children in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, told Refinery29 it was "extremely difficult and painful" living in Yemen right now. "Seeing your country and your people dying in their thousands from preventable diseases and hunger, while still having to worry about airstrikes and war, is just unbearable and mentally exhausting," she explained.
"Simple tasks and errands are becoming a challenge, and people are fed up and exhausted. I'm lucky to be one of the few people in Yemen who still receives an income and has a job. If I didn’t, I can’t imagine how I would survive with my big family, educate my young child or even just survive. Food prices are very high, and most families in Sana’a have other displaced family members who fled conflict zones and came to live with them since the beginning of the crisis. They are all struggling to have a decent meal."
Before the war, all of Sharafuddin's family were employed and had fixed incomes. Now, only she and two other members have jobs.
Their health is suffering
Diseases that people have stopped hearing about around the world, like measles, cholera and diphtheria, are spreading at the same time as the health system is collapsing. Many basic medicines are also unavailable because of import restrictions, which have led to dramatic price rises, Sharafuddin said. "Yesterday I went to the pharmacy to buy eye drops and was shocked when they came to 5600YR (£6).
Women are shouldering the heaviest burden. They carry the worry and fear of a whole nation.
"It's as if we were in a time machine and had gone back 100 years. Now we worry about basic survival needs like clean water, electricity, food, healthcare and quality education for our children."
One of her parents’ neighbours lost their 5-year-old child because he was severely malnourished and the father couldn’t afford to take him to hospital. "The father used to have a decent job and probably felt too ashamed to ask for help or money."
Sharafuddin's own cousin died at 17 from diabetes because the family couldn't access the right medication – the closure of Sana’a airport meant they couldn't seek medical support abroad either. "Her situation was very difficult for us to take. She was preparing for her exams, she wanted to be an English teacher in a good college, far away from the war."
Women are bearing the brunt
"Women are are shouldering the heaviest burden," explains Sharafuddin. "They carry the worry and fear of a whole nation and are usually the ones who go out looking for food to feed their children." They're also the ones left cooking and carrying water from faraway places to their homes for their families, she adds. "I know a mother who had to sell her house to make money to feed her five children – she had to make an impossible choice: homeless or hungry. They are now living in a small tent on the streets."
Some young women also feel pressure to marry sooner than they otherwise might, "because they feel like they’re a burden to their families," said Sharafuddin. "I met a 12-year-old girl who said she wanted to get married next year. When I asked her why, she said, 'because then I will be eating chicken and rice for lunch'."
Yemeni people feel ignored by the world
Sharafuddin believes the international community doesn't realise what's going on in her country. "They focus on the external political situation, which is very confusing and complicated for an outsider to understand. The reality is that the Yemeni people are being neglected by the world, and that innocent fathers, mothers and young children are the ones suffering."
She describes the current response as inadequate. "It is sad to know that my country is considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and nothing serious is being done to stop it. I have forgotten what it’s like to live in peace. Here in Yemen everything is dying slowly and we can’t do anything but watch it in pain."
Save the Children is giving families food and cash to buy medicines and other essential supplies, treating sick and injured children, screening and treating children for malnutrition, and more. To donate visit www.savethechildren.org.uk/yemen-crisis