More than seven months since floods washed out the bare-bones set-up Abdullah al-Jaradi and his family cobbled together after fleeing to a desert camp in central Yemen, he and many other residents are still struggling largely on their own – and a new rainy season is just around the corner.
Neither the government nor aid groups have the resources to replace or shore up more shelters damaged by the floods, or to help remedy the hunger al-Jaradi, his wife, and eight children face after aid funding cuts and rising prices sharply reduced their access to food. Hunger is becoming so pervasive, researchers warn that some residents of Marib province – where al-Jaradi’s camp and 196 others like it stand as sprawling tent cities – are edging closer to famine in a chronically hungry country.
"The war stranded us in the desert, and we have been forgotten about by everyone, both here and abroad,“ al-Jaradi, a retired government employee, told The New Humanitarian.
Over the past few years, Marib province has become a refuge for many fleeing fighting between Yemen’s internationally recognised government – backed by a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led coalition – and Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. Local officials estimate that 2.2 million people have fled to Marib, but this includes those who have left for political reasons. The UN’s count is closer to 300,000, and rising.
“The amount of aid we’re getting from local and international organisations can’t keep up with the increasing number of displaced families coming to Marib,” said Abdullah Jamala, director of the Saba Foundation for Relief and Development, a UK-based organisation that works in Yemen.
For Yemen, 2022 was already a grim year for humanitarian assistance: Donors gave $2.29 billion of the $4.27 billion the UN had sought for the aid it coordinates with its agencies and other NGOs. This year, the picture looks even worse: At a conference at the end of February, donors pledged only $1.2 billion of the $4.3 billion the UN is asking for.
Of the 2022 money, the World Food Programme (WFP) received only about $1 billion of the $1.9 billion it had asked for. A WFP spokesperson who declined to be named told The New Humanitarian that two of its biggest donors for Yemen – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – sharply reduced their funding last year. Collectively, the two states gave $23.6 million in 2022, down from $386.7 million in 2021, according to the spokesperson.
Because of the funding crunch, WFP cut the amount of food it distributes, as well as the frequency of those distributions. Abdullah Obaid, director of the Sailat al-Rumaila camp, said that about 10% of its 1,000 residents get assistance from WFP, and another 5% from CARE International. The rest are left to feed themselves.
“We've been living in utter misery,” al-Jaradi told The New Humanitarian in February. “We'd only been at this camp for two months when our tents were flooded. We lost everything.”
Al-Jaradi’s family lost all the food stocks they had in the floods, and now they have only enough money to purchase basics like flour and rice for one meal at a time.
They say the aid they receive isn’t enough to live on.
‘The rainy season will come again’
Like most of the people who arrive at Sailat al-Rumaila, al-Jaradi came with only a few essentials: blankets, mattresses, and kitchen supplies.
Torrential rains hit in August, completely submerging the tent he and his family shared. Their few possessions were destroyed, along with the food supplies they had received. Most of the camps are set in low-lying valleys – a mix of agricultural and desert lands with no systems for draining sewage or dealing with the heavy rains, when they come.
The wet season typically peaks in July and August, when heavy rainstorms bring a deluge of water down from the nearby mountains into the lowlands and urban centres like Marib.
Last year’s floods were particularly intense, washing away roads, knocking out power lines, and cutting off water supplies. At least 91 people were killed across Yemen. In Marib, nine people drowned and 31 were injured.
In camps like Sailat al-Rumaila – two kilometres east of Marib’s city centre – the situation was dire. The heavy rainfall collapsed tents and washed away critical food stocks. In the immediate aftermath of the floods, families packed into a nearby mosque. For days, the crammed building was their only source of shelter and clean water.
Al-Jaradi sent his children away to stay with friends elsewhere in Marib.
Like many Yemenis, he stopped receiving his pension early in the war when he fled his hometown – now controlled by the Houthis – in Raymah province. With no money to buy new mattresses or blankets, he climbed up a nearby hilltop, carrying whatever seemed salvageable, and spread the items on a plastic tarp to dry.
“I go out looking for work everyday so I can provide for my daughter and wife, but I return most days with nothing.”
Had it not been for a private Kuwaiti donor who sent his family a new tent along with blankets and mattresses, al-Jaradi doesn’t know how they would have survived. Al-Jaradi said he doesn’t know who the person is, how they found him, or how many other people they helped.
Saif Muthanna, head of the Marib branch of the Yemeni government’s Executive Unit for Internally Displaced Persons, told The New Humanitarian that his office had appealed to the government and to humanitarian partners for urgent relief after the flood, but the response was underwhelming: Of the 18,729 families in Marib identified as affected, 5,000 received aid in the days immediately after the flooding. This mostly consisted of meals, dates, and plastic covers for dilapidated tents.
While al-Jaradi’s family managed to get a new tent, there’s still not enough shelter to go around at Sailat al-Rumaila and other camps.
Obaid, the camp director, said about a third of Sailat al-Rumaila residents had received tents from either the Saudi Arabian government’s aid organisation (the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center) or from the UN’s migration agency, IOM. Everyone else has had to patch up their tents and make do or, like al-Jaradi, rely on luck and the generosity of private donors.
Yet safety from the floods seems temporary to al-Jaradi. “The rainy season will come again, and our situation has not changed,” he said.
‘We go to sleep without dinner on most days.’
Ali Hassan Hazi’s family was one of the lucky ones that received a new tent.
However, Hazi said he didn’t get any other assistance after the floods except the tent, and even that has been problematic: “We can’t stay in it during the day because it gets too hot, or at night because it gets too cold.”
The floods were a devastating blow for a family already in upheaval. In April 2022, Hazi was forced to flee his home in Hodeidah by Houthi rebels. But one month after taking refuge with his wife and daughter in Sailat al-Rumaila, the rains began.
“We were attacked by torrential rains that swept away all of our food, belongings, and shelter. We spent the night out in the open,” Hazi told The New Humanitarian.
The rains destroyed their stock of food, and the small stovetop and gas canisters that were their only way to prepare hot meals. They can’t afford to buy new ones. Hazi’s wife spends much of her time searching for firewood to cook with.
That’s if the family can afford food at all. To earn money, Hazi shuttles people around Marib on his motorcycle, but food prices are so high that – like al-Jaradi – he often only manages to buy a bit of rice and flour.
“I go out looking for work everyday so I can provide for my daughter and wife, but I return most days with nothing,” Hazi said. “We go to sleep without dinner on most days.”
US-funded hunger monitor FEWS NET predicted in January that “emergency” levels of food insecurity – the stage before famine – would “persist in Marib and emerge in Hajjah [in the Houthi-controlled north]” in February and March, “given expectations for gradually re-escalating conflict and large populations of displaced households who are highly dependent on assistance.”
Jamala, of the Saba Foundation for Relief and Development, said that “local relief organisations are left with the burden of searching for alternative aid initiatives that can help" those who are left without enough food. That includes private donors, among others.
While the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran last month raised cautious hopes for peace after eight years of war, the UN-brokered truce agreed last April – which ushered in the longest stretch of relative calm since the war broke out in 2015 – expired in October.
Marib itself is still on the front line of conflict and saw renewed fighting in March in the south of the province. More people are still fleeing their homes, in search of safety: According to the government, another 53,000 displaced Yemenis arrived in the province last year.
This article was produced in collaboration with Egab, which connects journalists from the Middle East and North Africa with news organisations worldwide.
Edited by Annie Slemrod and Josephine Schmidt.