Earlier this month, I wrote an article about hunger threatening hopes for peace and stability in Yemen. Even with the recent ceasefire between the government and rebels in the north, hunger remains a fast-strengthening storm throughout Yemen. Low funding for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has forced ration cuts and in some cases, the complete suspension of food aid programs.
Jennifer Mizgata, a WFP officer based in Washington, DC, went to Yemen in December. There she visited camps which are home to thousands of Yemenis who have been displaced by the conflict in the north. Recently, she took time to talk about the dire food situation at the camps and for all of Yemen.
How many people in the camps are currently receiving rations from WFP?
WFP and its partners are working hard to reach people who have been displaced by the Sa’ada conflict, reaching out to those who have taken residency in the camps and those who remain scattered throughout the countryside.
The current estimate of people displaced by the conflict is 250,000 persons and the number growing every day. WFP has already provided food assistance to some 215,000 IDPs in camps and scattered areas across five governorates.
The Al Mazraq camp is located in a harsh area of Northern Yemen plagued by dust storms. (WFP/Abeer Etefa)
With the funding shortfall facing WFP what is the size of this ration? What kind of calorie intake are Yemenis receiving in these camps?
The current ration cut involves reducing the per-person daily intake to about 1,500 kcal for displaced persons in February, down from the planned 2,100 kcal. The full ration of 2,100 kcal is the basic minimum energy requirement for a person to be healthy. The ration is expected to further decrease and could reach as low as 450 kcal by April before rations are cut entirely. The exact calculation also depends on what we actually have in stock in the various locations, as our procurement pipeline has not been able to supply all areas due to the funding issues. We are stretching the resources we have to reach the most people we can. In order to prioritize life saving general food distribution WFP will be required to suspend its complementary nutrition activities for 50,000 IDP children under 5 years of age beginning in May.
Tell us about something about the people you met in the camps? What were their lives like before the conflict escalated?
Azma is 20 years old and a mother of two. She came to the camp with her family of 20. They were the first to escape their village when the fighting broke out in August 2009. The family fled from their native village by foot, and reached Al Mazrak camp in Hajjah, some 20 km from the border of Sa’ada governorate. Though Azma wishes to return to her home when the war ends, she is thankful that her family is in the camp. Her family live around her in the surrounding tents, and her children are enrolled in the school at the camp. In the camp, Azma and her family receive monthly full food rations. She says, “I thank Allah for WFP’s assistance and the good food they provide which allows me to feed my children throughout the entire month.”
Hamid, his wife Fatima and their four children fled their homes when the fighting began and were forced to leave the safe haven they found once the conflict intensified to relocate to the Al Mazrak camp. Life in the camp isn’t easy. They left everything and arrived at the camp with no personal belongings. Because of a congenital defect, all four children are disabled and unable to walk to the school nearby to the camp. Yet even though their lives are difficult, they have helped others who arrived in the camp. When newly displaced people arrived and there was not enough space in the camp for new tents, they allowed families to stay in their tent and shared their food. When asked about the importance of the monthly rations he receives, Hamid says, “We rely on this food to survive.”
Low funding for WFP threatens further distribution of rations such as these high energy biscuits. (WFP/Abeer Etefa)
What impact is the reduced rations having on children especially? What are the long-term ramifications for potentially tens of thousands of children in this food crisis?
Since we are just reducing the rations, it is difficult to say how children will be affected, as the impact will be seen down the road. We expect that the consequences can be quite grave, especially given the alarmingly high levels of hunger and malnutrition that already exist throughout Yemen, independent of the current conflict. According to UNICEF, more than half of all children under 5 — or 2.6 million children — are malnourished in Yemen. The impacts of child undernutrition can be both grave and lasting. These children face serious health risks. Undernourished children are much more at risk for catching infectious diseases and risk facing death if their food needs are not met.
Hunger also inhibits a child’s ability to focus and to learn, leading to a serious loss of human capital. As the “Cost of Hunger “ study points out, undernourished children are more likely to start school later and miss school more often, due to the fact that they are more susceptible to other health risks. Down the road, this leads to lower productivity, workers who are qualified for less demanding jobs and less economic development for the entire country.
The hunger crisis in Yemen tragically goes far beyond the camps. Tells us something about the hunger afflicting so many people throughout all of Yemen.
Yemen is an extremely poor country and tragically, hunger affects millions of people throughout the country. Preliminary results of a new WFP Comprehensive Food Security Survey revealed that one of every three Yemenis (32%) is suffering from chronic hunger. That’s 7.5 million people. Overall, 12.5% of the population is severely food insecure (more than 2.9 million Yemenis). The final report has yet to be released publicly. Yemen is ranked as the 10th most food insecure country in the world, according to the Global Hunger Index (2009).
Yemen was severely impacted last year by high food and fuel prices and as the country began to recover, the global economic downturn struck. While people were still facing higher prices for food than they were used to, they were also receiving fewer remittances and less foreign investment. The capacity of the Government to provide basic services has been significantly reduced as a result of the fuel and financial crises which forced the Government to reduce the budget by 50%.
Another hardship for a country racked by food insecurity is water scarcity due to over-consumption, improper irrigation, rapid population growth, and climate change. Throughout the country arable land is limited and overexploited. Water is scarce but also overexploitation of arable land, food markets are poorly integrated, and the widespread cultivation of qat at the expense of food crops makes solving the hunger problem a difficult equation. We are hearing reports of people moving to areas with better water access as traditional water sources dry up.
If WFP could secure enough funding what kinds of transformations could its programs, in collaboration with the Yemeni government, have on the country?
With funding, WFP would reinstate the school feeding program, which was specifically targeting girls. This program had dramatic results- increasing school attendance, especially for girls by more than 60% in the first year of implementation alone. Families would receive take home rations when girls were attending school regularly, as an incentive for families to allow regular attendance. In the absence of funding, these take home rations were entirely cut. Enrolling more girls in school is one way to strengthen the Yemeni economy, by creating more women who are qualified to enter into the workforce.
WFP school feeding in Yemen has been suspended since June, 2009 because of lack of funding. (WFP/Luay Basil)
Moreover, WFP is elaborating a new operation to address the above emergency levels of hunger and malnutrition in Yemen – both are critical concerns which must be addressed immediately before an entire generation is lost. The planned operation will provide seasonal emergency relief to severely food insecure families, implement a robust nutrition intervention addressing critical levels of chronic and acute malnutrition among children, and look to capacity building.
In addition, the agency would be able to maintain life saving assistance to refugees and internally displaced person.
The agency currently faces a shortfall of some 75% of the needs to implement planned operations for the first 6 months of 2010 alone. Without additional funding, 1.4 out of a planned 1.5 million most vulnerable persons will be left without assistance.
What can readers do to help the people of Yemen suffering from food shortages?
Two great ways that readers can help: by donating or by helping to spread the word about the crisis. Visit the World Food Programme's web site to get involved. With the funding situation so dire, donating is one way that individuals can make a real difference. By spreading the word about the dire situation and letting others know that they too can make a difference, the impact that one person can have can grow exponentially!