Yemen's Looming Humanitarian Emergency

As civil unrest grips the Arab world's poorest nation, sharp spikes in the price of food and fuel could inflict new hardships on Yemenis—and lead to more violence, a writer reports from Yemen.

04.05.11 1:19 AM ET

Yemen’s growing civil unrest contains an impending human disaster whose impact has already begun to be felt in the everyday lives of the country’s 24 million citizens. And this looming emergency cannot be resolved through either military action or talks between the two opposing sides.

The price of basic commodities such as wheat, rice, and cooking oil was high even before the two-month uprising that has led to increasingly violent crackdowns on anti-government protests across the volatile Arabian Peninsula state. Now, food prices in the Arab world’s poorest nation have risen sharply. Coupled with rising oil prices and fuel scarcity, the spike is creating economic conditions that threaten to inflame the political crisis and spark even more violence in the streets.

“Certainly rising food prices and fuel shortages will exacerbate an already combustible situation,” said Princeton University Yemen analyst Gregory Johnsen.

The first signs surfaced Monday in the capital, Sana’a, where a young boy reportedly was shot and wounded by security forces attempting to break up a fight over fuel.

Oil production, which according to the World Bank accounts for 27 percent of the country’s GDP and 90 percent of its exports, has been hit hard by the unrest. Total, Yemen’s largest foreign investor, announced last month that production at its 42,000-barrels-a-day Block 5 oil field was disrupted following a pipeline attack. Similarly, Canadian producer Calvalley Petroleum Inc. said its pipeline that ships 50,000 to 70,000 barrels a day had to be shut down following a tribal attack. And Austria’s OMV halted production in mid-March and evacuated all its foreign employees.

“If removing Saleh means I and my family have to go hungry until he goes, then we will starve to make sure he leaves office.”

On Monday, Brent crude oil prices rose to a two-and-half-year high in reaction to the civil war in Libya. With the knock-on effect on production and transportation costs of imported goods in Yemen—a nation that imports 80 percent of its food—the impact of the resulting hike in the prices of basic foodstuff that’s brought in is already being felt on the street.

“For my family it is very difficult now,” said Mohammed Farhan, a shopkeeper and father of seven. “Every time we go to buy flour, the price has gone up, so we try to buy as much as we can afford now, because I know that next week it will be even more expensive.”

In March 2008, in the middle of a world food price crisis, the cost of wheat more than doubled in the space of four months, leading to weeks of protests and riots across the country. In the past two weeks, the price of wheat in Yemen has risen by 45 percent, and the cost of rice by 22 percent, according to the World Food Programme. The value of the Yemeni rial is also in decline, while the U.S. dollar is increasingly difficult to come by in the capital.

William Lambers, author of End World Hunger, described Yemen’s crisis of rising food prices as a “silent tsunami.” “If this crisis continues and food prices stay high, I think there is a great chance of more unrest, protests, and violence just based on that alone,” Lambers warned.

Yemen has the third-highest rate of malnutrition in the world, according to World Bank figures. Malnutrition is so rampant that more than half the country's children are stunted in growth. “The smallest children cannot wait for the political crisis to resolve, they need nourishment now in the first 1,000 days [of their lives] or they will suffer lasting damage or even worse,” said Lambers.

About 43 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, while unemployment is as high as 40 percent. Among those between ages 18 and 28—which includes the students and unemployed graduates behind the current anti-government protests—the jobless figure rises to 50 percent.

Protesters on the streets of Sana’a are well aware of the problems, and the continuing turmoil.

“We know what is happening. I pay… we all pay for food every day. But we can only improve Yemen’s economy by removing Ali Abdullah Saleh,” said activist Mustahr Al-Sufari from his tent in the midst of an anti-government sit-in. “If that means I and my family have to go hungry until he goes, then we will starve to make sure he leaves office.”

But Lambers says the risk is too great and that something can be done to avoid it. “First would be restoring food-aid programs that have suffered such big funding cuts. The World Food Programme has an emergency safety net operation that needs funding and this would provide rations to 1.8 million Yemenis... if it gets the funding.”

But as talks between the opposition coalition—the Joint Meeting Parties, or JMP—and the beleaguered President Saleh continue to falter, there’s little prospect of a peaceful political solution to Yemen’s crisis any time soon. That does not augur well for dealing with the growing economic hardship.

“Yemenis have traditionally taken to the streets to protest rising costs, and as the president continues to attempt to remain in power his increasingly reckless handling of the economy will make it even more difficult for the next government to succeed,” said Johnsen.