Is Yemen on the Brink of Humanitarian Disaster?
Aid workers say Yemen is on the verge of a humanitarian disaster; but as needs in the country increase, the delivery of aid is becoming ever more complicated.
One of the poorest countries in the world with a rebel movement in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and al-Qaeda forces at large, Yemen has now been tipped even further over the edge by an ever more violent response to pro-democracy protests across its main cities, a fuel crisis and rising food prices. Compounded, these factors have turned chronic problems like malnutrition into acute crises.
Yet as an already fragile humanitarian situation gets worse, hesitant donors, insecurity and logistical complexities are hampering the delivery of aid to the most vulnerable.
“We have here in Yemen many concurrent humanitarian situations to deal with,” said Geert Cappelaere, representative of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Yemen. “Each and every one of these humanitarian situations is very often of an unprecedented complexity for us as the international humanitarian community.”
To begin with, interest in Yemen has always lagged behind other countries in the region. As Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, wrote on his blog, “It has been difficult to get anyone to pay attention to Yemen.”
“While donors have pledged billions of dollars to help Tunisia, Egypt and Libya rebuild their economies and meet humanitarian needs, the plight of people living in the poorest country in the region is being forgotten by the international community,” Oxfam International said in a 19 September report about widespread hunger and chronic malnutrition in Yemen.
The funding that did exist is now shrinking. Among other things, donors have been worried that funds could be funnelled through a widely reported government patronage system.
In mid-2011, the Netherlands withheld government aid in protest at human rights violations during the crackdown, the Oxfam report said. In August, the World Bank announced a freeze of its half-a-billion dollar aid programme over security and governance concerns. The USA and European Union have also withdrawn or suspended some funding in recent months, according to Ashley Clements, the report’s author.
“Ironically… with Yemen facing one of its greatest humanitarian challenges ever, donors are pulling funds,” he told IRIN. “Some money is talked about and never pledged. Some is pledged and never given.”
The Friends of Yemen - a group of donors concerned for Yemen’s future, including the USA and European and Gulf states - has not met since the current crisis began in February, Oxfam said. The Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan, a UN-administered consolidated appeal for funds, has received less than 60 percent of the US$290 million it requested.
“While the political stalemate has caused many donors to pause, this is the time when it is most critical to act,” Oxfam said. “No longer should politics and security be the drivers of aid strategies in Yemen,” it added, referring in part to a US insistence on focusing its aid on counter-terrorism, rather than on the areas of Yemen in most need.
Insecurity in the country has also complicated the picture. The violent crackdown on protests in the capital Sana’a led the UN to temporarily evacuate more than half of its international staff. Most aid agencies have similarly cut down the number of staff present in the country, while trying to maintain the delivery of services.
Separately, renewed fighting between the army and militants in the south has displaced more than 100,000 people since May, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The World Food Programme (WFP) has seen a steady increase in the number of people it is feeding - from some 30,000 in June to 63,000 today, according to the WFP director in Yemen, Lubna Alaman. So far, the WFP is coping, she told IRIN. But “if anything else happens” - say a new displacement of a large number somewhere else - meeting the need would be a challenge, given the limited number of staff in the country, she said.
In the southern governorate of Abyan, the fighting has already hampered delivery of household items to displaced people, according to a 29 August situation report by OCHA.
For example, fighting in Abyan’s capital, Zinjibar, has led the military to close the area, making access to it very limited, said Tareq Talahma, a humanitarian affairs officer with OCHA.
In some areas in the north, malnutrition rates are among the worst in the world, with nearly a third of children under five suffering from moderate or severe acute malnutrition - more than twice the threshold for an emergency, according to a nutrition survey of displaced people from Hajjah Governorate conducted by UNICEF.
A rupture in a major pipeline in March sent fuel prices soaring and increased the price of food in a country where one third of the population - or 7.5 million people - did not have enough to eat to begin with. Oxfam found that of 100 families it surveyed recently, nearly a fifth took their children out of school to put them to work, and nearly two-thirds were skipping meals. Others were selling off valuable items to buy food.
But despite the alarming malnutrition rates and poor access to affordable food in the country, insecurity has hampered the delivery of nutritional supplies in some governorates, the OCHA report said.
Areas in al-Jawf, Ma’rib and parts of Amran governorates that are controlled by pro- and anti-government tribes create an access challenge for humanitarian agencies because “it’s very difficult to predict with whom you are dealing, what their agenda is and how they are going to deal with you,” OCHA’s Talahma told IRIN. Agencies rely on local partners to work in these zones.
In cities affected by the crackdown on anti-government protests, shooting is indiscriminatory, he added. “We can be indirect targets.”
The country’s lack of development has also been an issue. It has hampered a campaign to vaccinate children, the OCHA situation report said, with the government reporting that one fifth of the vaccination facilities are out of service because of a lack of transportation, gas, electricity and cold chain services.
Add to that low starting point the government’s reduced ability to provide basic services because of the recent political instability. The Ministry of Health, for example, is located in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods of Sana’a.
“If it was functioning at a 40 percent level before, it’s probably functioning at 4 percent right now,” Vipul Chowdhary, outgoing representative for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) France in Yemen, told IRIN.
His organization was forced to suspend its operations in the northern Sa’dah Governorate after the rebels controlling the area imposed new rules banning international staff from supervising activities.
MSF had been operating the only hospital outside the governorate’s capital, Sa’dah City, treating nearly 5,000 patients a month, including performing at least 80 life-saving surgeries and seeing 1,100 emergency cases. Negotiations with rebels have also delayed food distributions, according to OCHA.
Layers of challenges
Yemen’s needs are so layered that by dealing with one crisis, you may just create another.
About 20,000 of the displaced people in Abyan, for example, have taken shelter in 112 schools. As a result, several thousand students in the southern cities of Aden and Lahj did not start the new school year on 17 September, as scheduled, and have been told the schools are shut until further notice.
The government and aid community have been searching for a permanent alternative shelter, but have yet to find one that satisfies the displaced.
"We couldn't leave the classrooms just to live in the open or in stadiums that lack the minimum requirements for human life. We will only move back to our homes in Abyan Governorate," said 45-year-old Salim Abdullah, living with his family of nine in 22 May School in Aden city. "All the IDPs [internally displaced persons] in this school have agreed not to leave until the government compensates us [for damage to property] and takes us back to our homes." Khalid Naji, another IDP, told IRN that all the IDPs in Belguis School in Aden city unanimously rejected the idea of moving to camps.
If the displaced don’t vacate the schools soon, the international community will be forced to change tack - searching instead for alternative learning spaces to ensure that children, including displaced children in Lahj Governorate near Abyan and Aden, have access to education, UNICEF’s Cappelaere said.
It is a layer of complication that has blurred the lines between emergency and development work, and only contributes to a downward cycle, he added.
“How on earth do we think this country will develop if it has no educated population? There are huge stakes here. Whoever is responsible today for whatever is going on throughout the country needs to bear that in mind,” he told IRIN. “This is not just about a political chess game. This is a chess game that has incredible humanitarian consequences for children and also therefore jeopardizing the future of the country.”
For all these reasons, “aid in Yemen is now undeniably more complex and more risky than in previous years,” the Oxfam report said.
Still, the organization insists there are ways of getting around the obstacles, using “innovative” solutions, such as food vouchers and cash programmes to strengthen local markets and connecting with the private sector, which may already know how to function safely and effectively amid insecurity, to deliver aid.
“Aid can get through, even in highly complex, challenging, and insecure environments,” the report said, adding: “Donors may need to think further outside the box in order to get support to those in need.”