Yemen heads for famine as food used as weapon in conflict

Global indifference making dire situation even worse, International Crisis Group says

War is starving the people of Yemen and no amount of international humanitarian aid can feed them if current circumstances persist, a new report has indicated.

"Without an immediate, significant course change, portions of the country, in the 21st century and under the watch of the [UN] Security Council, will likely tip into famine," the International Crisis Group (ICG) says in a special briefing entitled Instruments of Pain: Conflicts and Famine in Yemen.

The ICG is a non-governmental organisation that carries out research into conflicts and advances proposals to try to resolve them. It says the projected disaster in Yemen is a direct consequence of decisions by all belligerents to “weaponise the economy” and to use the availability of cash, payment of salaries and provision of food to weaken and defeat the opposite side.

These measures have been “coupled with indifference and at times a facilitating role played by the international community, including key members of the Security Council such as the US, UK and France”, it says.


It recommends that, in order to avoid famine, the Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Houthi rebels and their allies must halt the coming battle for Hodeida, Yemen's major port, which is held by Houthi forces and blockaded by the Saudis.

Fighting would close down Hodeida, where the Saudis have already bombed docks and cranes used to offload supplies, creating bottlenecks and delays. Ninety per cent of Yemen’s food is imported, 70 per cent of it through Hodeida before the war.

Urgent assistance

The crisis group says Yemen faces the most dire food crisis in the world. The UN estimates that 17 million Yemenis, 60 per cent of the population, including three million added at the start of this year, are food-insecure and require urgent assistance.

Seven of the country’s 22 provinces are on the brink of starvation and could easily slip into full-blown famine. Both government and Houthi-held areas are affected. “Unicef reports 460,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition,” the group states, quoting the UN’s children’s fund.

“The evolving hunger crisis has both a supply and demand side, with an underlying motif of combatants pursuing war by any means with little or no regard for the population,” asserts the group. It quotes a businessman who argues both sides are engaging in profiteering.

While the Saudi-led coalition has “repeatedly . . . hindered the movement of aid and commercial goods to the population”, the Houthis have “enforced a full or partial blockade since 2015” on the city of Taiz, “with devastating humanitarian consequences”, says the group.

It says the situation could get much worse if the Saudi coalition attempts to “break the stalemate that has largely held since September 2015 by attempting the capture the Red Sea coast, including Hodeida”. The Saudis say they must take the port “to stem the flow of weapons” to the Houthis and force them to negotiate.

Peace initiative

However, the crisis group says it was the “Saudi-backed Hadi government [that] officially rejected the latest peace initiative of the UN special envoy” and says Hodeida is monitored by the coalition navy and the UN.

The group warns that if the Hadi government captures Hodeida, “there is widespread agreement among Yemenis that [it] would use control of the port to further squeeze [Houthi-] controlled areas economically” in order to destroy rebel unity and “engender an internal uprising”.

While food is available, Yemenis do not have the means to purchase enough to eat. “After two years of ground fighting and air bombardment, the economy is in tatters. Families and communities are approaching a breaking point, having sold their assets, spent their savings and exhausted extended networks of support,” reports the group.

The worst off are three million internally displaced and women and girls, “who are typically the last to eat [in a family] and in December 2016 made up 62 per cent of the four million people [out of 25 million] suffering from acute malnutrition”.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times