x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Political unrest has overshadowed humanitarian crisis Yemenis face

Uprising to force out Yemen president has driven up the cost of food and fuel, has cost jobs and crippled the country's oil industry.

SANAA // Mohammed Al Hetari set the meal down on the ground for his family - just two baguettes and a small bowl of sour cream for his four boys and two young girls.

They eat on the dusty pavement. There is more space outside in the winter sunshine than in the single, cramped room where they live and sleep.

"These days, I struggle just to provide one meal a day for my family," said Mr Al Hetari, as a mass of small hands tore at the bread and dipped it into the thick white liquid. "We pray every day that our situation will improve."

UN agencies warned this week that Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, was on its way to becoming another Somalia.

It is estimated that almost four million people will be affected next year by the political and economic crisis that has gripped the nation for most of this year following the uprising to force out the president, Ali Abdullah Saeleh.

The UN said 10,000 families, such as Mr Al Hetari's, are not getting enough to eat because the political turmoil has driven up the cost of food and fuel, has cost jobs and crippled the country's oil industry.

Mr Al Hetari and his children are an increasingly typical Yemeni family. None of the youngsters go to school. The eldest two boys, Mohammed, 12, and Nabil, 10, are street hawkers, selling everything from tissues to sunglasses to the drivers and passengers of taxis and sparkling SUVs at a major road junction in Sanaa's upmarket Hadda Street.

Another daughter, Fatma, 15, was married this year.

"At least she has a husband now who will be able to provide for her," said Mr Al Hetari.

Unable to afford hospital treatment, his eight-week-old son, Ibrahim, died in March.

"He was very weak," explained Mr Al Hetari as he ruffled the hair of his barefoot Nuha, 3.

Mr Al Hetari used to sell vegetables with his cousin in one of the capital's busy street markets.

But when Yemen's fuel crisis hit this year, brought on by the destruction of oil pipelines by anti-government tribesmen, the transport system for food supplies collapsed.

Almost 11 million of Yemen's 24 million people live below the poverty line of US$2 (Dh7) a day, according to Islamic Relief.

The 10 months of conflict have sent food prices soaring, created a water crisis and the internal displacement of almost half a million people, who have fled conflict across the country.

The UN has said it needs US$447 million (Dh1.64 billion) in aid.

Aid agencies have said many families have reached breaking point.

"The fuel crisis has had a direct impact on food production," said Kelly Gilbride, the programme policy adviser for Oxfam.

After a recent trip to the areas of Hodeida in the west and Hajja in the north, the UN children's fund, Unicef, estimated malnutrition rates at more than 30 per cent,

Ms Gilbride said farmer's yields were decreasing.

"Water for irrigation can't be pumped because of the fuel shortage," she explained.

This is in a country which already had to import 80 per cent of its food even before the Arab Spring and the uprising.

Even before this year's crisis, Yemen had the third highest rate of malnutrition in the world, according to World Bank figures.

Malnutrition was so widespread that more than half the country's children suffered stunted growth.

Oxfam has said that basic food prices have risen by almost 50 per cent and fuel prices are almost five times higher, which in turn has driven up the cost of water.

More than half of all Yemenis rely on water being delivered.

The central government's ability to deal with the worsening humanitarian crisis is limited. Despite Mr Saleh's transfer of power to his deputy, Abdurabuh Mansur Al Hadi, under a Gulf-brokered peace deal last month, the transitional government sworn in less than two weeks ago faces a desperate economic challenge.

Oil production previously accounted for 60 per cent of government income. But with repeated destruction of oil and gas pipelines this year output has faltered, forcing Yemen to import crude oil and fuel.

For the second time this year, the Aden oil refinery halted operations last month.

The political turmoil has cost the economy more than $8bn (Dh29.35bn), said the former industry and trade minister, Hisham Sharaf, last month.

The International Monetary Fund predicted economic output will shrink 2.5 per cent this year, the first decline since unification in 1990.

As the unrest gripped the country, unemployment, already about 35 per cent, soared, leaving half the workforce jobless.

While political developments move forward, to elections planned in February, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Jens Toyberg-Frandzen, said this week the forecast for humanitarian needs "are set to deteriorate still further over the next 12 months".

"The political situation has overshadowed the crisis being faced by men, women and children across the country," said Ms Gilbride. "In Al Jawf, people are going without food for three days at a time ... areas are comparable to Somalia."

For now, Mr Al Hetari and millions of others have only hope.

"We can only live from this day to the next and hope that tomorrow might be better," he said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae


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