Seventeen million people in Yemen are going hungry after years of conflict, exacerbated by climate change and the occupation of key ports by Houthi rebels, has ruined harvests and blocked vital food imports.
Ukraine and Russia together accounted for about 20 per cent of global wheat exports, a proportion that was vital for net importers, particularly in the Middle East.
The vast majority of the world's grain is consumed domestically and disruption to exports can have dangerous consequences for fragile importers such as Yemen, because prices rise while competition to secure supply stiffens.
The World Food Programme says one of its largest aid operations is focused on the Yemen but efforts are amounting to a race against time, as deteriorating conditions could raise the number of hungry people who require assistance to nearly 20 million by 2023.
The WFP said the MV Karteria, with 37,000 tonnes of wheat grain on board, had left the Ukrainian port of Yuzhny.
The WFP-chartered ship will stop in Turkey, where the grain will be milled into flour before sailing to Yemen.
“The war in Ukraine has been the last straw in Yemen against a backdrop of prolonged conflict. It is paramount to get commodities flowing back into the country and especially grain — for humanitarian and commercial purposes,” said Richard Ragan, WFP’s representative in Yemen.
The UN agency said the grain shipment would provide a 50-kilogram bag of wheat flour to nearly 4 million people that would last them for about a month, helping the WFP to address immediate aid gaps.
The Russian war in Ukraine, which started in February, has been deeply felt in Yemen, where a long-running conflict created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine.
Yemen, the poorest Arab country, depends on direct imports of wheat flour — a key staple in Yemenis’ diet — from Russia and Ukraine. The WFP estimates that 46 per cent of Yemen’s wheat imports last year came from Ukraine and Russia.
What turned into a highly destructive civil war in Yemen broke out in 2014, when Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized the capital of Sanaa, as well as much of the north, forcing the government into exile. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia entered the fray early the next year to try to restore the internationally recognised government to power.
More than 150,000 people have been killed, including at least 14,500 civilians, in the conflict that turned into a regional proxy war between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.