In UN-speak there are five levels of “food insecurity.”
This ranges from generally food secure to famine. The chart below, from the Food and Agriculture Organization, gives you a sense of the indicators that humanitarian agencies use to determine where people fall along the spectrum of being able to eat what they need to survive.
It’s worth emphasizing that “famine” is not an emotive term. And neither does it simply mean “lack of food.” Rather, it is a technical threshold that is reached when you combine acute malnutrition of children aged 6 months to 5-years-old with mortality rates from “wasting” that exceed 2 per 10,000 per day.
According to the latest data from humanitarian agencies, much of Yemen is on the brink of exceeding that threshold.
This map is from a report published by the European Union and FAO which shows that about half of Yemen’s population, or 14 million people, are food insecure. This includes nearly 3 million people who require urgent nutrition assistance. And of this cohort, about 2.1 million people are currently acutely malnourished, including 1.5 million children – 370,000 of whom are suffering from “severe acute malnutrition.” This represents a 65% rise in people in need since late 2014.
What’s causing this sharp deterioration in food security? In short: the war.
Bread for the World Institute’s analysis shows consistently that conflict is a major cause of hunger. It destroys food crops as well as people’s access to food – markets, storage facilities, vehicles, and other resources needed for food distribution. Beyond this, conflict destroys communities and creates humanitarian crises as people are forced to leave home with whatever they can carry to escape violence and look for food. Those who flee may feel safer, but they are often worse off than before when it comes to food, shelter, and medicine. They have left behind the land where they grow food, their extended families and support networks, and most of their possessions.
The military coalition that supports Yemen’s exiled president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, has imposed a sea blockade on territory held by the forces fighting the Hadi government for control of the country. These fighters, known as the Houthi rebels, are associated with a branch of the country’s Shi’ite minority. Most ships carrying food and medical supplies are unable to dock.
In September, Hadi ordered the central bank to relocate its headquarters from the capital city of Sana’a, currently controlled by the rebels, to Aden, a southern port city held by the government. His aim is to cut off funds to fighters, but according to reporting by Reuters News Agency, “The move could leave ordinary Yemenis short of cash and make food shortages worse by depriving traders of the financial cover the bank has offered.” Oxfam’s humanitarian policy adviser, Richard Stanforth, concurred: “The politicization of the central bank and attempts by the parties in the conflict to use it as a tool to hurt one another … threaten to push the poorest over the edge.”
The good news, such as it is, is that a 72 hour ceasefire is set to begin today. The bad news is that these ceasefires, periodically negotiated by UN officials, have not been particularly enduring. And after each ceasefire collapse, civilian infrastructure has been consistently and relentlessly targeted.
If that pattern continues it will be only a matter of time before famine strikes Yemen.