Warnings of famine in Yemen are coming hard and fast these days, with UN Relief Chief Mark Lowcock telling the Security Council on Tuesday that “there is now a clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine engulfing” the country.
The truth is that Yemen has been teetering on the edge of famine for much of its more than three and a half years of war, and while food prices have recently shot up thanks to a collapsing currency, this is not the first time humanitarians have rung the alarm bells.
Back in November 2017, the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels and their allies temporarily closed Yemen’s air, land, and sea borders in response to a rocket sent by the Houthis towards Riyadh. Eighteen NGOs issued a statement then expressing concern that “the humanitarian situation is extremely fragile and any disruption in the pipeline of critical supplies such as food, fuel, and medicines has the potential to bring millions of people closer to starvation and death”.
The blockade was later eased and some aid was allowed in, but as we pointed out at the time, when it comes to averting famine, commercial imports are more important than relief supplies.
In most of Yemen, shops and markets still sell food. But many people simply don’t have the money to buy it. Yemen’s currency has been in freefall since September, causing a spike in food and fuel prices and even further impacting the average Yemeni’s ability to purchase what they need to survive.
Millions of hungry people live in Yemen. The UN now estimates that 14 million Yemenis, half the country, could soon be in what it calls “pre-famine” conditions; that means they will rely on aid to survive. That number may rise even more if Yemen’s Red Sea port of Hodeidah is closed by fighting; the coalition is currently intensifying an offensive on Houthis in the city.
But declaring a famine is a technically complicated process, as this account from South Sudan illustrates:
We don’t yet know if and when famine will be declared. Analysts are reviewing market, health, and nutrition surveys from across Yemen to determine if the situation crosses the technical threshold of “famine”. In order to avoid false alarms and crying wolf, strict requirements must be met before a situation can be designated a famine. And even that declaration can still be held up or delayed by political concerns – governments and warring parties typically don’t want to admit to a famine on their watch.
In 2011, the UN declared the first famine of the 21st century in Somalia, caused by war, drought, and restricted relief access. The announcement was met by a wave of new funding, international media and diplomatic attention, and more determined efforts to work through blockages. The declaration, based on the same Integrated Phase Classification methodology that Yemen analysts are using, had no automatic effect but galvanised an international response, including $1.25 billion in 2011. Any famine declaration is an admission of failure: later studies showed that about half of an estimated 260,000 Somali deaths took place before the pronouncement.
For now, just when an official declaration of famine will come, if it comes at all, is still unclear. What we know for sure: malnutrition can be deadly, and right now it’s making some Yemenis more susceptible to diseases like cholera and diphtheria.
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