Life on the breadline: a crisis point

Chronic hunger and deprivation in Yemen have prompted the intervention of the UN, which says the country is failing to get a fair share of international aid

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SANA'A // Eight months ago, Fatimah Mabrouk, 46, moved with her family to Yemen's capital to try and escape the grinding poverty of her rural home. "There is nothing there in our village; there is no rain and no food. My husband's part-time work used to secure us hand-to-mouth life but, since his renal failure, we have lost our provider," said Mrs Mabrouk. Along with her three children and husband, Mrs Mabrouk packed their meagre belongings and left her home governorate of Hodiedah, in the country's west.

"I have to stay in the street with my three children for around thirteen hours [a day], begging for food. We sometimes earn three to four hundred riyals [Dh5.5 to Dh7.3], but sometimes, I sleep without food," she said. Mrs Mabrouk and her family live in one of the poorest countries in the world, with about 35 per cent of its 23 million people living below the poverty line and an unemployment rate of 35 per cent. It is ranked 153 out of 177 countries, according to the UN Human Development Report for 2007.

The availability of food has started becoming a nagging problem in Yemen where more than one-in-three of the country's population is suffering from chronic hunger, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The WFP, which is working to provide food for more than 1.6 million vulnerable Yemenis, recently appealed to international donors for an additional $US 23 million (Dh 84.5m) of funding, warning that the situation will deteriorate further if this amount is not made available.

"We are appealing for additional support to maintain safety nets in Yemen. If we do not receive this amount, we will have from next October [2009] to suspend operations, including life-saving ones," Gian Carlo Cirri, the WFP representative in Yemen, said. "The situation will deteriorate quickly and sharply. Most of our beneficiaries will not be able to meet their basic food requirements; some of them might decide to move from rural to urban centres. Some kids will further be malnourished. In short, it could end up with a difficult humanitarian situation," he said.

Mr Cirri said the WFP operation also covered malnourished children under five years old, pregnant women and new mothers, people affected by the conflict in the north and families affected by last year's floods in the east. Its food-for-education and heath schemes, which benefit 850,000 people a year, offer food as an incentive for families to visit health clinics and send their daughters to school.

The programme also supports Somali refugees in Yemen and families affected by high food prices. Abdulkarim al Iryani, a political adviser to Yemen's president, recently warned that the country, stricken by a toxic cocktail of drought, economic crisis and political unrest, could suffer a famine next year. However, Mr Cirri said it was difficult to anticipate what would happen."I think Dr Iryani is very much worried about the agricultural situation and there are indeed worries about it. Yemen has been facing drought for some years and if we go through another year of drought, the situation will obviously further deteriorate."

Mutahar al Abbasi, deputy minister of planning and international co-operation, said the situation was not critical enough to call it a famine. "It is true the number of poor people is high but the problem has not yet reached famine," he said. Mr al Abbasi admitted the situation was critical and required attention. Only about two per cent of land in the country is arable and 70 per cent of people in the rural areas make their living from agriculture.

Yemen imports 80 per cent of its food. Wheat production is expected to rise to 900,000 tonnes this year, up from 600,000 in 2008. However, Yemen has one of the highest birthrates in the world and there is still a major shortfall. Wheat imports are expected to reach 2.5 million tonnes this year, according to government figures. "The question of food security is of top concern to the government. The situation is critical if we take into account the increasing bill of imported food and the drop of the oil price which has put another burden on the government. In addition, Yemen does not have a strategic food reserve to face difficult times of shortage," Mr al Abbasi said.

Oil revenue, which formed 75 per cent of public revenue and accounts for 90 per cent of export income, sank 75 per cent in the first three months of this year, down to $365m from $1.46 billion in the same quarter in 2008, according to the Central Bank. Prior to the rise in food prices in 2006, Yemen reported that 12.5 per cent of the population lived on less than $1 a day. While food prices had eased recently, they were still higher than they were before 2006, the WFP said.

"The sharp increase of food prices in the international market is another factor that is aggravating the situation because the very poor people could not access food commodities because they are expensive. "To mitigate this, we have launched an emergency operation designed to distribute food to over 630,000 of the poorest and most vulnerable Yemenis in the eight most food-insecure governorates of the country," Mr Cirri said.

The factors leading to the high level of poverty in Yemen are, according to aid agencies, unstable economic growth, low level of human resources development, rapid population growth (three per cent), lack of jobs, poor water resources, rising prices and weak social safety nets. Mr al Abbasi said government efforts had succeeded in reducing poverty from 41.8 per cent in 1998 to 34.7 per cent in 2006. However, in rural areas, where poverty is more prevalent, the reduction was only one per cent, compared to 12 per cent in urban centres.

"Government surveys showed there is a sharp decline of poverty in urban areas while it is relatively small in rural areas where 75 per cent of the population lives. This means we have to work hard on the countryside," said Mr al Abbasi. In a bid to counter the problem, the 111-member Shoura recently made a series of recommendations, including increasing the use of local organisations. Measures include giving local groups their share of funds normally distributed to international organisations. It also wants to establish local funding agencies and make legal amendments to allow allocating parts of zakat revenues to relevant local organisations to be distributed to the poor.

WFP has recommended better co-ordination among the international community. "Yemen is benefiting from donor and international community support but it is very little when compared to other countries. There is a need for international community support and a need for increased co-ordination among donors to face the situation. There is also a need for updated studies to integrate the new shocks impact so that we can have a good picture of the situation," Mr Cirri added, referring to the impact of high food prices and diminishing oil revenue.

Mr al Abbasi said the government is working with the donors to improve Yemen's food production. "We are working with the donors, mainly the World Bank to improve the local production of food and better management of water resources. But, we should stop depending mainly on oil and look for other resources like tourism, fishery and foreign investments," Mr al Abbasi said. However, for Mrs Mabrouk, these plans and proposals mean nothing if she does not one day find money to feed her family. She dreams going back to her village.

"I want to go back home. I am tired of this life where I have to beg the mercy of everybody passing the street," she said.