Silent Famine amidst political bickering: Yemen in July 2020

Summary: an ineffectual UN effort, a derelict oil tanker, an ongoing war, Covid-19, acute food insecurity – the  stark tragedy of Yemen in the summer of 2020.

Once again we thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years, and has written about political, social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, published by Saqi Books, is a seminal study of the conflict and what lies behind it.

Last April the UN Security Council warned the world that a famine of ‘biblical proportions’ was likely as a result of Covid-19, climate change and conflict, listing Yemen among the most affected countries, with 17 million people suffering ‘acute food insecurity.  With Covid-19 raging, well into the 7th month of the year and the UN’s Humanitarian appeal funded at 18 % (itself 25% lower than last year), Special Envoy Martin Griffiths gave a 2500 word interview in which he sketchily mentioned the humanitarian emergency and simply ignored the following:

  • the struggle between Hadi’s internationally recognised government and southern separatists, marking further fragmentation of the anti-Houthi front; despite Saudi efforts to solve this crisis, fighting has resumed in Abyan and beyond.
  • the collapse of UNMHA (Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement) operations on the very day when, an added irony, the UNSC renewed its mandate for a year. Most of its staff have been evacuated, fighting in Hodeida continues apace, and it ceased activities months ago (see posting of 21 May 2020) and are unlikely to resume in the foreseeable future
  • the prospect of famine looms due to constraints on access to Hodeida port, insufficient humanitarian funding, and a collapsed economy.

Instead, Griffiths outlined his current negotiations which ‘started in March’ (what has he been doing for the last two years?). As he gave the interview, his proposals had already been rejected by the Hadi government. The draft Joint Declaration includes a nationwide ceasefire (certainly welcome to millions of Yemenis waiting for it since 2015); a WHO-supported joint government-Houthi unit to deal with Covid-19 (while there has been no more equipment or supplies for more than two months); payment of civil servants on the 2014 payroll (most of whom have been without salaries since late 2016); the release of prisoners and detainees (agreed in Stockholm in December 2018, followed by a series of negotiations most recently in Amman in February 2020); the re-opening of Sana’a airport (closed since the summer of 2016), a very welcome development for patients and others, either unable to travel since then, or facing the difficulties of travel through areas controlled by hostile southern separatists; ‘easing the restrictions on commercial container ships…’ to Hodeida; and finally addressing the problems of the SAFER tanker (see below).

Ensuring failure, his proposed joint declaration ‘commits the Parties to urgently resume peace talks based on the three references’, namely UNSC 2216, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference  and the 2011 GCC Agreement, the very references rejected by the Houthis since 2015. They are clearly outdated and ignore today’s balance of forces. Praising his consultation of women and youth and his virtual widespread exchanges with Yemenis, he made no mention of politically or militarily significant forces excluded from his operations.

The Safer tanker is carrying about 4 times as much oil as was discharged in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster

On 15 July the UNSC held a meeting to address the problem of the SAFER Floating Storage and Offloading facility (FSO) lying off the Yemeni Red Sea coast unmaintained  and deteriorating since 2015 and carrying 1.15 million barrels of oil. UN experts have attempted to reach it, assess its condition and carry out emergency repairs. However, the Houthis have prevented this mainly because of disagreement with the Hadi government about the use of income from sale of the oil. Threatening to cause a massive environmental disaster (estimated at four times that of the Exxon Valdez) it would also directly destroy the livelihoods of more than 1.6 million Yemenis with the complete closure of fisheries along the Red Sea coast. A major spill might also force the closure of the Red Sea ports, affecting millions more. The Houthis have said they will accept an inspection team. However, the last time there was such an agreement, the UN team reached Djibouti only to be prevented from accessing the ship, so assuming success is premature, regardless of Houthi assertions.

No famine has been announced but it is on its way. As mentioned above, 2020 humanitarian funding is way below requirements. Although the majority (54%) of funds delivered went to the World Food Programme, it has already cut rations by half throughout Houthi controlled areas, and reduced the number of beneficiaries from 13 million to 8 million in April before the Covid-19 crisis exploded. Most Yemenis depend on imported staples from the commercial sector, so food prices are directly linked to international market prices, delays in port handling (including demurrage charges incurred by waiting ships), and the exchange rate at which importers obtain their foreign currency. This last element benefited from a preferential exchange rate (YR 570 =US$ 1) in the Aden Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) thanks to funds of US$ 2 billion provided by Saudi Arabia in early 2018. This reserve is now effectively exhausted, so importers must buy their currency at open market rates which dropped as low as YR 750= US$ 1 in June. Exchange rates are expected to worsen in coming months possibly to as low of YR 1000 per dollar. Saudi Arabia is extremely unlikely to replenish Yemen’s hard currency when under military attack from the Houthis in the north, and the government’s Aden CBY  headquarters are under siege from southern separatists who resist Saudi efforts to implement the Riyadh agreement.

Further exacerbating the food security crisis has been the collapse in remittances. Humanitarian aid in recent years has been about US$ 3 billion per year, whereas the World Bank estimates US$ 3.7 billion per year of remittances  have reached families in Yemen. (Although not comprehensive, this figure covers the majority of remittances.) Remittances go directly to households and are therefore an essential survival mechanisms for millions of Yemenis. The current Covid-19 crisis, economic contraction, anti-migrant policies, disruption of trade routes, and other problems worldwide but particularly in Saudi Arabia which hosts the majority of Yemeni expatriates have already resulted in a massive drop in remittances, estimated in June to be at up to 50%.

The combination of reduced aid, unemployment, lack of government salaries and dramatically reduced remittances ensure that, in coming months, in addition to those dying of disease, including Covid-19, thousands more will die of hunger, officially described as malnutrition related diseases, whether famine is officially declared or not.

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