x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Political instability in Yemen leads to a season of suffering

The headlines from Yemen are about politics and violence, but the daily realities there now are about poor diet, shortage of clean water, costly and scarce petrol, and grinding hardships in ordinary life.

Rumours abound in Yemen. Nobody really knows what the future holds so all they can do is focus on day-to-day reality. And that reality is pretty gloomy.

Intermittent power cuts across the country have meant that at times electricity has been available for just a few hours per day. Without electricity perishable goods cannot be stored. Blood banks, hospitals and medical supplies have been affected, especially with the fuel needed to supply generators becoming scarce.

The high price of petrol means the tankers that usually provide a lifeline by delivering water to people's homes are off the road. Water is in frighteningly short supply. Families simply do not know when the tanker will call to their homes next.

The public health risks of reduced water intake are obvious. It could be only a matter of time before we start to hear of large numbers of people affected by dehydration, kidney infections and high blood pressure. Acute watery diarrhoea has already been reported in the south - a consequence of the fighting is that large numbers of families have been displaced and have lost their access to clean water.

Reports show that food prices are increasing sharply with costs of staple goods higher than ever before. Goods such as eggs, beans - now considered a luxury item - and meat are not available. There's no profit to be made when transport and other overhead costs are as high as they are.

As a result, people's diets lack the nutritional variety their bodies need. They are relying on a bland carbohydrate-based diet with little protein or fibre. Last year it was estimated that more than seven million people did not have enough to eat each day; that figure is likely to have risen significantly over recent weeks, although until the security situation improves it will be impossible to tell the true extent of the problem.

Fuel shortages continue to bite in the country. The recent supply of oil sent by Saudi Arabia has started to trickle through but it is not enough. Black market prices are high and the petrol is poor quality. Taxi drivers have been forced to double their prices, making it hard for people to get around safely.

The effect of months of uncertainty in Yemen is taking its toll on ordinary families. People are exhausted and ground down. They need to know that life will not always be as tough as this.

For years, rich countries have not provided adequate funding for the poorest country in the Middle East. Avenues such as the UN-administered humanitarian response plan - a pool of funds to respond to life-threatening issues across the country - have not been adequately supported.

The international community simply cannot sit on its hands any longer. Donor countries must ensure that the humanitarian needs and the welfare of ordinary Yemenis are moved up the priority list. Security concerns and domestic agendas must not distort the response of rich countries to this crisis.

Despite the ongoing challenges faced by humanitarian teams in conducting much-needed assessment work, needs are clearly starting to emerge and we can see that practical support is what is urgently required. By working with the UN and others, rich countries can quickly play an effective role.

Targeted funding through secure channels is what will make a difference on the ground. Various options might work including a scaling up of the existing Social Welfare Fund (which already provides cash payments to the poorest families).

Problems in Yemen are widespread. Rich countries must not give up on Yemen but instead find creative ways to respond to people's needs on a large scale. This is hard, but not impossible - it has been done in other fragile situations elsewhere.

The challenges in Yemen will not be solved overnight - but that's certainly not a reason to delay tackling them.


Colette Fearon is Oxfam's country director for Yemen