x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Yemen's hunger pangs go unnoticed

With the world's attention focused on the Houthi insurgency, al Qa'eda, and the southern secessionist movement, the country's widespread malnutrition problem has largely been overlooked.

Yaya Salama, his children and, far right, niece and nephew depend on rations for sustenance.
Yaya Salama, his children and, far right, niece and nephew depend on rations for sustenance.

THULA, YEMEN // In a blue bonnet and floral-patterned gown, Anut arrived for her rations, listlessly, in the arms of her brother, 10-year-old Bashir. Anut, who is two, should be bursting with energy, but her frail, undernourished body shows signs of exhaustion. Her condition is typical of villagers who come for food handouts at the small government hospital in Thula, a dusty warren of 7,000 people about an hour's drive north-west of Yemen's capital, Sana'a.

"We have food in our markets, but many find difficulty in buying it," said Anut's uncle, Yahya Salama, 42, whose grizzled, weathered face suggests a man well beyond his years. "Everything is becoming expensive, but there is no way to get more money, and families keep having more and more children." Beset by insurgency, secessionist fervour in the south, daily influxes of refugees fleeing the Horn of Africa and al Qa'eda's presence in the country, reports from Yemen suggest a country on the brink of disaster.

But residents of Thula - and increasing numbers of other Yemenis - suffer from what humanitarian workers here say is perhaps the country's least publicised crisis: widespread malnourishment, brought on by grinding poverty. Thula's residents are not refugees displaced by the government's war on Shiite rebels in the Sa'ada governorate, a few hours north of here. Nor are they any more indigent than many of their 23 million compatriots, who predominantly reside in rural areas.

They are cucumber farmers, primary school teachers or simply members of Yemen's roughly eight million unemployed. Accompanied by his three young children, Mr Salama visits the hospital each month for such basic staples as vitamin-fortified flour and sugar distributed free of charge to residents by the World Food Programme (WFP). "Even if you have work, it's not enough to buy enough food," Mr Salama said. He earns just over US$100 [Dh367] a month as an English teacher at a local primary school. He is the family breadwinner.

"Believe me - my children beg me to come here." The food aid, he said, "is keeping them from becoming too thin". Yemen is the Arab world's poorest country. Roughly half of its population scrimps on $2 a day. The country is long on such facts. For starters, according to United Nations statistics, it has one of the world's highest rates of child poverty: nearly half are undernourished and a further 58 per cent experience stunted growth, a percentage point below that of Afghanistan.

But, says Giancarlo Cirri, the Yemen country director for the WFP, a UN body that provides various forms of aid throughout the country, poverty in general is reaching alarming levels. "Yemen is in a situation of crisis on many, many fronts," he said. "Food insecurity and malnutrition is definitely one of these fronts." Although precise figures are lacking, Mr Cirri said, new research was "showing a sharp increase in poverty in Yemen".

"The International Food Policy Research Institute, for example, estimates that from 2006 to date poverty has increased by 25 per cent. "It is extremely worrisome." The primary causes, he and others here say, can be pinpointed to a recent maelstrom of economic and political factors. Oil exports, accounting for 70 per cent of government revenues, have fallen dramatically, forcing the ministry of finance last year to call on all ministries to cut expenditures by half - including those on social welfare projects. Poor farming practices and drier weather are rapidly depleting water supplies. And the increasing scarcity of water, according to aid workers, has begun uprooting some rural communities to search for new sources.

Despite a slight easing following a surge two years ago, food prices have remained high as the government scales back its vast, expensive petrol subsidies. Many complain about shortages of cooking gas. Its price has doubled over the past year; queues to purchase it can last hours and, in places like Sana'a, have erupted in sporadic rioting. Meanwhile, remittance payments from expatriate Yemenis are falling as the financial crisis takes it toll, while population growth, one of the world's highest, surges ahead at roughly three per cent a year.

The result, says Abdo Seif, an adviser for the United Nations Development Programme, is essentially a reversal of what marginal poverty-reduction successes had been achieved over the past decade. "We don't have firm empirical evidence yet, but based on what we've seen from the food commodity crisis, it appears that poverty has basically returned to the same levels as 1998." Part of this can be attributed to poorly funded government efforts to address hunger, such as the Social Welfare Fund, he said. "It's not funded adequately enough to meet the daily calorie demands for people.

"It's recommended that over 2,000 Yemeni riyals [Dh36] be given per person every month to secure the target of 2,000 calories a day. "But the Social Welfare Fund is giving 2,000 riyals per family, and the average family is almost six to seven people." At the hospital in the Thula, several residents said they were unaware of the fund. Helping to fill that gap are staples delivered by a WFP lorry, which unloads in front of the hospital's entrance. Gaggles of gaunt boys, some brandishing the traditional knife of Yemen, the jambiya, wait for their share of the spoils.

Inside, WFP staff and the hospital's three physicians and 12 nurses wrap tape measures around children's arms to measure body mass. Mothers who have recently given birth receive vitamin supplements and basic health advice, such as the proper way to treat chronic diarrhoea among infants, which can lead to dehydration, and if not treated, can be fatal. But funding constraints have limited WFP efforts, Mr Cirri said.Physicians complain that limited funding from the government has led to a shortage of medical supplies at the hospital.

"We don't have good labs, we lack enough vitamins for pregnant woman, like folic acid. We don't even have an ambulance," Waleed Saleh, a general physician at the hospital, said. Some lab equipment, such as those used for examining blood samples, has been broken for months, he said. Shelves in the in-house pharmacy are all but bare, except for smatterings of antibiotics and miscellaneous medications.

Asked if he expected an improvement in hospital funding any time soon, Dr Saleh said: "Things are getting worse. "There are many, many problems in Yemen." @Email:hnaylor@thenational.ae