x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The word on Sanaa's streets? Plenty of food few can afford

This Ramadan, many Yemeni families are struggling to pay for the most basic of food items, skipping meals altogether and surviving on little more than bread and tea.

As Yemen is gripped by its worst humanitarian crisis, with 10 million going hungry and more than five million in urgent need of assistance, this year's Ramadan is proving harder than ever.

In better years, Yemenis would traditionally stock up on food as Ramadan approached. Special purchases of sweets such as dates and juice would be made. Breaking the fast with iftars among family and friends would universally be a celebratory event.

Copious amounts of food are still available in the markets: fresh fruit and vegetables, breads, all kinds of grains, and sweets and dates. In small shops, the bright colours of boxes and tins -red, gold and green - are dazzling. The problem is that the cost of food items has rocketed and Yemen, which imports around 90 per cent of its food, is particularly vulnerable to global food prices.

"How can someone with a big family and no work afford to buy anything with these high prices?" complained one woman I met in the city market of Al Hodeidah.

The high price of diesel - which has doubled in Al Hodeidah in the past month - has also had an effect.

A date farmer in the wholesale market told me he spent three times as much money on fuel to operate pumps to irrigate his palm trees; but his crop size was about 20 per cent less than normal.

In the debilitating heat, which usually hits the high 40s Celsius, ice is in high demand. But according to one shopkeeper, the cost of powering generators to keep the ice cold in freezers has seen prices rise seven-fold.

This year, many families are struggling to pay for the most basic of items. Large numbers skip meals altogether and survive on little more than bread and tea.

Zuhra Wanis, a widower in her 50s who lives in Bayt Al Faqih district in Al Hodeidah, can only dream of better years. "Things were good three years ago," she recalled. "Then, during Ramadan, everything was available." She reels off a list of what she used to buy - items that are now far beyond her family's reach. Today, family meals mostly consist of bread.

In her small house, in Al Hawak village, Ms Wanis takes me into her kitchen. There's just one eight-kilo sack of grain that the family will use to make bread. She tells me it used to cost 800 riyals (about Dh14); today, its costs 1,400 riyals (Dh24). The sack will only last Ms Wanis's family for two weeks, and she was already worried about how much her next purchase will cost.

At least one-third of all households in Yemen are surviving by buying food on credit. Shopkeepers, in turn, buy their stock on credit. The local markets mostly operate on this precarious system.

It has worked so far, but shopkeepers such as 25-year-old Ala'a Abdullah Faraq, who has a small store in Al Hawak, sleep poorly these days, worried that their customers won't be able to pay them back - and the subsequent defaults could prove devastating.

"The majority of my customers buy on credit," he said. "On average, my customers owe me about 30,000 riyals (Dh515) each month."

"I worry one day I'll go out of business because my customers can't pay me back. Sometimes I get calls from traders asking me when I'm going to pay them their money. Others stop by the store to ask me the same question."

Another shopkeeper, 23-year-old Yunus Al Hamadi, told me a similar story. "We're owed about 4 million riyals [Dh68,000] in debts by our customers. We buy our food from wholesalers and owe them about 9 million riyals [Dh154,000]."

But Mr Al Hamadi is philosophical about the future. "We don't worry," he said, "because we can't change anything. We just live day to day."


Caroline Gluck is Oxfam's humanitarian press officer based in Sanaa