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07.18.11

Yemen’s Dangerous Hunger Crisis

The embattled nation is struggling to find food and water while the world focuses on ending President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s violent campaign to keep power, writes Ellen Knickmeyer.

In one of the cities at the center of Yemen’s revolution, tanks and soldiers of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalist forces occupy the main hospital, turning away the civilian sick and wounded, and using the hospital as a vantage point to shell residential neighborhoods at night.

Prices of water as well as food have soared amid Yemen’s political crisis, so that ever more poor families are resorting to drinking water from rain and other contaminated sources, and new reports of cholera outbreaks are reaching the capital, Sana. Yemeni cities are emptying of day laborers and other poor, aid officials and residents told me, as men return with their families to their villages in hopes of escaping hunger.

Months of violent political crisis are depleting the savings and stockpiles of more and more Yemenis, so that not only beggars, but neighbors, come round to quietly ask for food.

“There’s no work, no water, no electricity, no security. When we sleep, my family and I are not sure if we will live until morning, because of the shelling on the houses, and the bullets all night,” says Ali Qassim Abdullah, a 44-year-old father of three young children. Abdullah spoke in Yemen’s southern city of Taiz, where loyalist units commanded by the son of Yemen’s president are accused of nightly—and sometimes random—artillery fire.

“The whole world is watching this happen to us in Taiz. And no one speaks or objects,” Abdullah told a Yemeni reporter in Taiz who helped me talk to civilians.

It’s not surprising that Saleh’s government, and his son and nephews in charge of loyalist security forces, are neglecting and even compounding the suffering of civilians. It was Saleh who has driven the country into chaos since protests started in February, and who ignored the fundamental needs of his people throughout his more than three-decade rule.

What is surprising is that the international community, which rightly has suspended development aid to pressure Saleh to honor his repeated broken pledges to resign, is also neglecting humanitarian aid for Yemen’s trapped civilians. The inadequate humanitarian response risks giving the impression that the international community itself is using hunger and thirst as political tools. U.S. and other diplomats have given no sign of pressing Yemeni politicians for a resolution with the urgency that the people’s suffering demands.

This is not only a political crisis. We are having a huge humanitarian crisis at hand.

And the international media, focused on the political horror show involving the intensely stubborn Saleh and his supporters versus the rivals seeking to oust him, give little coverage to the worsening plight of Yemen’s civilians. “This is not only a political crisis. We are having a huge humanitarian crisis at hand,’’ UNICEF’s Geert Cappelaere said by telephone from Sana.

Yemen’s conflict features Saleh and loyalist security forces led by his family arrayed against a variety of opponents demanding his ouster—including peaceful democracy activists, Yemen’s official opposition coalition, tribal forces, southern secessionists, and northern rebels. The primary focus of the United States has been on trying to block a Yemen-based branch of al Qaeda from taking advantage of the political chaos. Having belatedly concluded there’s no longer any prospect of Saleh being a stable partner against al Qaeda, the U.S. has joined a multinational diplomatic push for him to resign.

Yemen’s political conflicts reached a stalemate on June 3, when a bomb badly wounded Saleh in an assassination attempt, forcing him—along with many of his top officials—to go to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. (During Saleh’s decades in power, his government never bothered to provide even the most minimal health care to fully half of Yemen’s people. The World Health Organization estimates that officials stole or wasted half of what little they allocated to health care. Tellingly, as much as Saleh reportedly hated flying to Riyadh for treatment and risking a coup at home, his own neglect of Yemen’s health care forced him to do so.)

John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, visited Saleh’s hospital room in the Saudi capital earlier this month to tell the Yemeni leader that development aid would start flowing to Yemen again only when he honored his pledges to quit.

The U.S., Saudi Arabia, and some other countries have contributed some humanitarian aid amid the political crisis. But international lack of funding, rather than the lack of security, is preventing foreign organizations from doing more to help civilians in much of Yemen, some aid officials say. The World Food Programme, for example, was able to feed only half of 100,000 Yemeni girls targeted in the most recent round of a ration program to keep girls in school—because international donors had given only 30 percent of the funding needed for the program, said Gian Carlo Cirri, the WFP’s country director for Yemen.

‘’If the international community wishes to help prevent further socioeconomic disintegration within Yemen, one of the best things they can do is to support food security operations,” Cirri told me by email.

Of course, civilians are suffering and dying in other revolutions in the Arab world. The difference in Yemen is that civilians there already lived on the brink, owing to the corruption of Saleh’s regime.

Even before the political crisis, Yemen had the highest child-malnutrition rate in the world, Cappelaere said. Sixty percent of children under 5 are stunted by malnutrition, a rate worse than most of sub-Saharan Africa. Seven million of the nation’s 24 million people already lived on less than one meal a day. Armed conflicts that Saleh aggravated already had displaced hundreds of thousands, and further interrupted health care, so that Yemen experienced the kind of deadly outbreaks of measles and other treatable diseases that have racked warring Congo.

Since Yemen’s political crisis, tribal attacks and other disruptions have interrupted the nation’s fuel supplies, sending the cost of bread up 60 percent and the price of trucked water up a disastrous 400 percent.

Once the most fertile country on the Arabian peninsula, Yemen already was on course to become the first nation in the world to have its capital run out of water, as a result of the government allowing unlimited drilling of underground reservoirs. Since fighting started, water taps run once or twice a month at best, residents say.

“’You wanted the revolution, and you wanted to change the government. Now go to the sea and drink,’’ government water workers told Abdullah, in Taiz when he went to appeal for drinking water, he says.

Unable to afford water—like most day laborers, Abdullah has not been able to find work in the political crisis—he and his family drink stored rain, or send the children with buckets to collect water that sloshes out of the tanker trucks when neighbors buy water. His own savings depleted, and dependent on family and friends for handouts, Abdullah feeds his family little more than dry bread.

When Abdullah’s pregnant wife went to Taiz’s main hospital for treatment, Republican Guards occupying the facility turned her away.

Ever more Yemenis are begging on the streets for money to buy food, “complaining about how they suffer,” Abdul Wali al-Khuleidi, a botanist for the government, told me by email from Taiz. Even neighbors come to ask for money for food, and “this was not normal before.” Yemenis and aid officials describe poor Yemenis as selling off their few goods—from mobile phones to farm tools to jewelry–to buy food.

In Sana’a, “more than 50 or 60 percent of the people who lived and worked in the city had to go back to their village,’’ Ali, a cab driver in the capital who gave only his first name, said by mobile phone. “We are very, very affected by the prices,’’ said Ali, who is using his savings to feed his family after going one and a half months with no fuel for his cab. “We don’t know where we’re going and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

By necessity, ‘’there is a lot of resilience in Yemenis, a lot of solidarity. But it’s obviously going down every day,” Cappelaere of UNICEF said. “Traditional mechanisms to cope … have their limits.”

Ellen Knickmeyer reported from Beirut. Manal al-Qadasi contributed to this report from Taiz, Yemen.