SANAA // Yemen is facing a humanitarian crisis requiring urgent international aid, a UN mission in the country said yesterday, warning that the months-long power struggle must not lead to "collective punishment" of its citizens.
The mission's statement came after a separate study found 10,000 Yemeni families are not getting enough to eat because the political turmoil has driven up prices of food and fuel, cost people their jobs and crippled the country's oil industry.
Nearly six months after huge protests began against the regime of the country's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, life is becoming ever more desperate for Yemenis. The uprising has become increasingly violent and Yemen's leaders show no sign of resolving the stalemate that is taking a grim toll on the impoverished country's fragile economy.
"Yemen is facing a humanitarian plight attributed to deliberate acts or a failure to take action," the mission from the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights said in a statement at the end of a nine-day visit.
"We remind everyone that civilians must not fall hostage to collective punishment because of the power struggle."
The mission said a breakdown of security and a spread of lawlessness are fuelling the suffering. Fuel and electricity are in short supply and it is difficult to deliver food to rural areas, the statement said. Health and education services are being hampered while inflation and high unemployment have led to an economy dependent on the black market.
The mission's statement echoes the findings in a report released on Monday by the Studies and Economic Media Centre (SEMC), a Sanaa-based non-profit organisation.
The report warned that the rise in food costs and the shortage of fuel are making it difficult for about 9 million Yemenis to get the food they need.
The price of food staples such as wheat, flour, sugar, yogurt and milk have increased by 40 to 60 per cent. It estimates that the cost of transporting goods has risen by 60 per cent.
The report said the violence has caused a serious shortage of fuel products such as gasoline and diesel. Prices for those items have risen by 900 per cent, the report said. The punishing fuel prices have "affected the prices of all commodities and paralysed the function of many economic sectors and some service activities," the study said.
The government on Tuesday said the growing food crisis has nothing to do with the political stalemate. "We understand food insecurity is a very serious issue and we have been working on this with international donors and agencies," said Hisham Sharaf, minister of trade and industry. "But, it has nothing to do with the current political problem." The government also said in a statement on Tuesday that the country has enough food to last for months.
Nonetheless, the authors of the study see a connection. Because of the fuel problems, a water shortage has worsened. The price of water, the study says, has jumped by 202 per cent partly because there is not enough fuel to operate well pumps.
Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world with nearly half of its 24 million people living in poverty. About 7 million do not have the money for three meals a day, according to the aid organisation Oxfam. Roughly 40 per cent of the population is undernourished, according to the World Bank.
Yemen ranks 11th in the world for food insecurity and second for malnutrition in children under age 5, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.
Mustafa Nasr, director of the SEMC, said the political stalemate is making food more difficult to get. He said many Yemeni families "are now under the threat of famine," said Mr Nasr.
He also took issue with the government's claim that there is an adequate supply of food. He said the critical issue is not the supply but a person's ability to afford the food.
"The availability of food does not mean that a majority of the people will be able to get it. It will go to the well-off," Mr Nasr said.
The fuel crisis also increases as the government remains in limbo. Hundreds of drivers wait for days to get petrol. Shootings have become common at fuel stations.
Shortages intensified in March after tribesmen in the province of Mareb damaged the main pipeline that carries crude oil to Ras Eisa port on the Red Sea. Yemen relies on fuel imports for more than half of its needs. The disruption at the Aden refinery has forced the country to increase fuel imports when it can least afford to.
Mr Sharaf said the government spends $450 million (Dh1.7bn) on importing fuel each month, while before the attack on the pipeline, the government used to spend only $180m. "This is a nagging problem and it is draining off our money. We are importing everything after the attack on the pipeline and we are paying extra money to secure the oil tankers while on roads," he said.
Political leaders both for and against Mr Saleh's government have accused each other of backing tribesmen to act as saboteurs.
Mr Saleh is in hospital in Riyadh after an apparent assassination attempt last month. He has not given any clear indication when, or if, he will return to Yemen, but western diplomats said his injury is serious and he is not likely to come back before two months. Diplomatic efforts have so far failed to convince the president to step down and transfer power to his vice-president.
The report has warned that these price rises and the inability to acquire food would have far-reaching and disastrous impacts on poor Yemenis, including psychological and social damage.
The study urged Yemen's leaders to prevent a looming humanitarian and economic crisis. It also urged government forces and tribal groups to allow fuel tankers safe access to cities.
Like thousands of people, Ahmed Mohsen, a father of six children, has lost his job and finds it difficult to feed his family: "I used to work as a brick worker but for the last five months, the business has been paralysed. I am not able to bring enough food to my family because the money I saved is running out.
"Everything is expensive and we have started to have two meals," Mr Mohsen said.