The convergence of multiple crises in an already vulnerable environment has left Yemen and aid agencies at a crossroads. The context has become an extremely complex and challenging one within which to reduce hunger, malnutrition, and fragility. Yet it is precisely because of these challenges that humanitarian intervention is vital to keep struggling populations from tipping into utter disaster.

Yemen is both a food-deficit country and one of the world’s least developed. In addition to widespread poverty, the country suffers from chronic food insecurity and malnutrition, with human security indicators ranking among the weakest in the world. Potential for development is increasingly challenged by a number of complex and concurrent crises including volatile food and financial markets, climate change, deepening fracture lines in the North and South, insecurity, and population migration resulting from a deteriorating humanitarian situation.

Importing more than 90 percent of its staple commodities, Yemen is acutely vulnerable to global market conditions - taxing an already hard-pressed population. Global food prices have declined since their peak during the 2008 food crisis, but the price of basic commodities remain out of reach for many families.

Looking ahead, the country’s population of 23 million is set to double by 2030, further straining limited resources. Yemen suffers from rising unemployment and high poverty rates, with over 45% of the population living on less than $2 per day. Illiteracy runs high — 60% for females and 23% for males — while gender disparities are consistently ranked as the biggest in the world.

New threats from global financial crisis, conflict — and declining water tables
As Yemen began to recover from the effects of high food prices, the country was struck by the global economic downturn. Heavy dependence on oil exports meant that plunging oil prices and oil production cut sharply into Yemen’s revenues; the government halved its annual budget for 2009 and is tapping deeply into reserves. This has severely limited the government’s capacity to provide basic services to an impoverished, food-insecure population hit hard by declining remittances, foreign investment, and aid.

Regional insecurity and economic hardship further strain Yemen’s limited resources. Since civil war broke out in Somalia nearly two decades ago, hundreds of thousands of refugees have crossed the Gulf of Aden, leading to a protracted refugee situation in Yemen. The country has also experienced a growing wave of refugees from other countries, particularly Ethiopia, while high rates of piracy in the Gulf continue to hurt Yemen’s economy.

In addition, Yemen bears all the hallmarks of a pending environmental catastrophe. One of the greatest challenges facing the country is rapidly depleting water tables due to over-consumption, inefficient irrigation, rapid population growth, and climate change. A new wave of displacement is now being reported as families move from rural villages to areas with better access to water — increasing the potential for migration and clashes over water access. Moreover, dropping water tables combined with overexploitation of arable land, poorly integrated food markets, and cultivation of qat at the expense of food crops limits agricultural growth — perpetuating a vicious cycle in which the country is ever more reliant on imports and vulnerable to market changes.

Fragile Economy Further Undermined by Conflict
Since 2004, there have been six separate rounds of war between the Government of Yemen and the group known as Al Houthis. The Humanitarian Country Team predicts that as many as 200,000 persons could be internally displaced by ongoing fighting which continues to disturb supply routes and hamper the access of aid agencies to many families in need. If the warring parties do not act on promises to guarantee safe passage for relief convoys and to implement time-bound humanitarian ceasefires, the ongoing tragedy could rapidly degenerate into a major humanitarian catastrophe.
Stability is further threatened by a growing separatist movement in the South. There is potential for a new wave of migration in the South due to the compounded effects of violence, water scarcity, high food prices, and the financial crisis. Meanwhile, the incidence of tribal conflicts and extremist activities further strains the fragility of the country and stretches the Government’s already weakened capacity to respond.

Humanitarian challenges — and solutions
The Government of the Republic of Yemen and humanitarian partners have recognized the urgent needs of the situation and are moving towards an emergency approach in parallel to development activities before an entire generation is lost to hunger and malnutrition.

However, the ability of actors to effectively and widely respond to Yemen’s ever-growing needs has been continuously challenged by limited financial support. The impoverished nation has historically received less assistance compared to other least developed countries (LDCs), receiving only $12.70 per capita compared to an average $33.40 in other LDCs.
The global economic crisis has curtailed limited funding even further for aid programs. In Yemen, in spite of positive donor response including a $5 million contribution from the US government (USAID/Food for Peace) in January, World Food Programme operations are facing a shortfall of $22.3 million — or more than 75% of its needs for the first half of 2010. Unless there is a rapid injection of new funding, WFP will be unable to meet its commitments and 1 million out of 1.3 million planned beneficiaries will be left entirely without food support by March 2010."

Funding shortages have already forced WFP to repeatedly reduce or suspend rations for people displaced by conflict, flood victims, and the most impoverished families affected by high food prices. In addition, WFP had to shut down successful food-for-education programs for more than 100,000 school girls nationwide, driving down enrollment and attendance. This critical investment in the future is one Yemen can ill afford to lose.

Assessments have shown that when WFP assistance is suspended, families turn to negative “coping mechanisms,” including removing children from school, reducing expenditures on healthcare, skipping meals and substituting less nutritious foods, and incurring new debts.

In a country with alarming rates of malnutrition, hunger, illiteracy, and poverty, the impact of the disruption of aid could be catastrophic. Regularly referred to as the next Afghanistan or Somalia by observers, Yemen’s stability is crucial not only to the region, but to the world.

Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.