Over the past five years of war, I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought to myself that surely things can’t get more desperate in Hodeidah, the Yemeni city where I live and work as an aid worker.
But then they do, and time and time again I have to watch families squeezed just a little more, making it that much harder for them to survive.
In Hodeidah, once a bustling port city and trading hub, things have been going from bad to worse for years. In November 2018, I wrote about the battles, airstrikes, and shelling making it harder for Islamic Relief, where I work, to help my neighbours. Back then, with the help of the international community, we narrowly averted a widespread famine, and eventually fought off a cholera epidemic that peaked in 2017 and went on to infect more than two million people.
Now, the fighting that plagued our streets has eased (although it rattles on elsewhere in Yemen), but it feels once again like we’ve been abandoned by the world, and at precisely the most dangerous moment.
In 2018, even as the bombs fell, sometimes just hundreds of metres from our homes and food distribution sites, aid workers like me kept working. But the UN’s appeal for Yemen is now so underfunded that for the first time in years my staffers are staying home: we just don’t have any aid to give out.
It feels once again like we’ve been abandoned by the world, and at precisely the most dangerous moment.
The World Food Programme has had to cut back rations, so this month we will not be delivering anything to the 700,000 people we usually serve on WFP’s behalf. The food baskets we gave them in June containing staples like flour, rice, cooking oil, dates, and sugar – designed to feed a family for a month – will now have to last two.
At the beginning of June, as COVID-19 was already spreading through the country, the UN asked for $2.4 billion for this year’s programmes run by its agencies and other NGOs like Islamic Relief. Donor countries promised only $1.35 billion, and $619 million has actually been given.
Across the country, the World Food Programme, often through other NGOs, feeds about one in six of Yemen’s 28 million people, either through rations or vouchers that they can spend at markets and shops. If the WFP does not have enough money to continue, millions more people will feel the pain.
Even before these funding cuts, food aid could not meet the needs of everyone. Yemenis have endured hunger and uncertainty with humility and patience. They’ve done what they can to adapt, selling their furniture and wedding rings. But they’ve come to the end of the line.
I know this because people plead with me to bring them more food, and there is nothing I can do. With food prices up, I can already see the impacts of the decreased rations. The same families who had their rations cut are now bringing their children, who are just skin and bones, to our malnutrition centres. Emergency admissions to these centres are up.
More and more people are begging on the streets. On my short walk to work, I now see well over 100 people asking for help, including elderly women and young children. Grown men are also out begging because they cannot buy food or medicine for their wives or children, who have perhaps grown too weak to venture out themselves.
Jobs, oil, remittances, and coronavirus
The problems do not just stem from a lack of international funding: the reasons why Hodeidah, which has long been one of the most food insecure parts of Yemen, finds itself in this ever-worsening crisis are many and complex. And, at the moment, they’re all crashing together into what’s already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Hodeidah’s port has barely been functioning for years, leading to massive job losses. In addition, the $10 billion in remittances Yemenis usually send home from abroad each year are down as family members outside Yemen lose their jobs due to COVID-19-related economic problems.
And even as oil prices fall to record lows elsewhere, they are shooting up in Yemen. Here, one litre of petrol costs $1.80. That means that people only have electricity a few hours a day, and now it is too expensive for most to buy fuel for the generators that fill in the gaps. Hospitals have emergency supplies of fuel, but they could easily run out.
The fact is that people are dying because they can’t buy enough food.
COVID-19 has made everything worse, leading to delays in moving key supplies and aid. It used to take a truck a week to get from the southern city of Aden, controlled by the internationally recognised government, to the northern capital of Sana’a, run by the Houthis. Now, it could easily take a month.
The impact of all this is simply catastrophic, yet the international community has chosen to look the other way. Islamic Relief is pumping in $10 million of additional funds to Yemen, but with so many hungry people, it’s a drop in the bucket.
The fact is that people are dying because they can’t buy enough food. Given what I am seeing, famine is the direction that we’re headed in, and fast.
I can’t pretend to have all the answers. I know donor money will help, and the international community must do its part. Lives literally depend on it, especially in the midst of the global pandemic.
Ending the violence and arbitrary bureaucratic requirements that often constrain or threaten aid delivery would make a huge difference too. Aid workers and aid should be able to reach those in need.
Above all, I hope and pray that this will be the last year of war in Yemen, and that we will finally see all sides come together to find a peaceful, political solution to end this conflict. The consequences of failing on this end are too horrific to think about, even for someone like me, who has been on the front line of my country’s crisis for far too long.