In February, we reported that the United Nations Director-General (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), and UNICEF had officially declared famine in the Greater Unity Region of South Sudan—a declaration that was important because it meant two things: 1) many people had already died of hunger, and 2) humanitarian efforts could be stepped up in an effort to prevent food insecurity from drastically increasing during the narrow window of time before the “lean season” peaks in July.
But at the first of the year, South Sudan was just one-quarter of a larger story about simultaneous, unprecedented need in four parts of the world, as famine also loomed in Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen.
And now, that threat has advanced from “looming” to reality for close to 7 million Yemenis.
The under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O’Brien on Tuesday told the United Nations Security Council that “Yemen has the ignominy of being now the world’s largest food security crisis with more than 17 million people who are food insecure, 6.8 million of whom are one step away from famine. Crisis is not coming, it is not looming, it is here today – on our watch and ordinary people are paying the price.”
One particularly distressing truth about this newest development is that the typical famine-triggering conditions—crop failure, drought—are not in play in Yemen. Already one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, Yemen’s economy has been further paralyzed by an ongoing civil war (now in its third year) between forces aligned with the internationally-recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the Shia-led Houthi militia loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (whose corrupt and oppressive rule lasted more than three decades and collapsed during the Arab Spring uprisings).
“If there was no conflict in Yemen, there would be no descent into famine, misery, disease and death – a famine would certainly be avoidable and averted,” said O’Brien. “We all know there will be no military solution.”
And while the conflict has meant food aid doesn’t reach the most vulnerable Yemenis, rising commodity prices have also challenged families to meet even the most basic food needs. A 2016 Oxfam food survey found that “63 percent of households said they rely on credit or loans to buy food, while almost half of those surveyed said they rely on neighbours and community members to supplement their food supply.”
While Yemen’s health system creaks and groans under the weight of war, threatening to fail completely, and a surging cholera outbreak continues to spread, “The results for Yemen’s people are all too predictable,” reported the Foreign Policy blog ten days ago. “This is a classic pre-famine pattern. Widespread inability to afford sufficient food erodes a population’s health and increases vulnerability to disease. Malnutrition programs and degraded health services prove unable to keep up. And disease outbreaks begin killing off a weakened population, starting with the elderly and very young. The kindling for a major famine in Yemen is squarely in place, awaiting only a spark.”
But as of Tuesday, the U.N.’s most urgent concern seems to be protecting the vital Red Sea Hodeidah port, through which 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports arrive, Reuters reports. O’Brien told the Security Council that an attack on the port would “directly and irrevocably drive the Yemeni population further into starvation and famine.” Yet protection of the route is evidently not something all parties have been able agree on: the pro-Hadi Saudi Arabia-led military coalition says it’s determined to take back areas held by the Houthis, including the port, but will work to ensure alternative delivery routes for food and medicine.
In his final few statements, O’Brien urged the international community to take immediate action to ensure that port and land routes remain open, civil servants are paid, and asked States to exert their influence to make sure all parties involved in military actions adhere to international humanitarian and human rights law.
“This is no longer just a question of politics or economics,” he said. “It’s about basic humanity, human dignity, and indeed, survival.”