By EVA SOHLMAN
July 11, 2012
SANA, YEMEN — Odai Saleh’s large, hollow eyes follow the movements around him lethargically and his emaciated, birdlike face expresses no interest in the toy car next to him on the hospital bed.
Nearly 5 years old, Odai weighs a mere 10 kilograms, or 22 pounds. A few weeks ago he was brought to the therapeutic feeding clinic at Sabeen Hospital here in Sana, the capital, suffering from severe malnutrition. He had been sick for weeks with vomiting and diarrhea despite treatment in Hamdan, his home village.
“Malnourished children like Odai are so fragile, they are like glass,” said Rajia Sharhan, a pediatrician and nutrition specialist with Unicef, describing the young victims of the worsening food shortage in Yemen. Unicef, which supports the clinic, has scaled up its nutrition intervention program in Yemen over the last three months.
Odai is fortunate. Unlike many Yemenis, he is getting help and recovering; but aid agencies warn that the crisis in Yemen is turning into a catastrophe.
The international community has been slow in its response, and concerns are growing that the country’s already tenuous democratic prospects may be at risk unless the transitional government receives more foreign assistance in meeting people’s essential needs.
“It’s worse than we had thought,” said Jamal Benomar, the United Nations envoy to Yemen. “The latest figures for Yemen are not far from the situation in Sahel in Africa or Afghanistan, but unfortunately this is not attracting attention from the world.”
Hunger in Yemen — the poorest country in the Middle East — has doubled since 2009, according to the World Food Program. The ability of families to feed their children has deteriorated significantly in the last year as food and fuel prices have soared amid the political turmoil and economic activity has ground to a near halt.
About 10 million Yemenis, or 44 percent of the population, no longer have enough to eat, and 5 million are in need of urgent emergency aid, according to a report from the World Food Program in May. Over a quarter of a million children are so malnourished that they risk dying, and nearly half of all children under 5 years old are chronically malnourished, putting their physical and mental development at risk, the report said.
Some 90 percent of Yemenis have been affected by higher food and fuel prices, the report said, and the situation is expected to stay difficult because the country depends on international food markets, where prices remain high.
Other contributing factors include a lack of clean drinking water, high unemployment and poverty. Nearly half the population lives below the poverty line of $2 a day.
While there is still food in the markets, there are signs that supplies are shrinking, the World Food Program said. The country’s agricultural potential is limited by water shortages and the cultivation and consumption of qat, a water-intensive plant producing the mild narcotic leaf that Yemenis like to chew.
For households in urban areas, the breakdown in law and order has made it harder to get food.
Under a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council last November, Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to end his 33-year presidential rule and allow for a peaceful democratic transition, following street protests and international pressure. But Mr. Saleh and his allies have challenged the new president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, creating tension in the capital and curbing chances of finding a way out of intertribal and clan rivalries that have led to street battles and hampered the transition to democracy.
Conflicts in the north and south of the country have aggravated the situation, particularly in the south, where militants linked to Al Qaeda expanded their presence during last year’s chaos. At least 95,000 people were forced to leave their homes as a result of conflicts this spring — bringing the number of internally displaced refugees to more than half a million, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Many Yemenis have run out of options. Families talk of skipping meals for several days, pulling their children out of school to beg in the streets and selling whatever they can to survive. More than one third of households have a food-related debt, and one quarter of all food is now bought with borrowed money, the World Food Program said.
Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, who recently visited the country, said people were talking openly about starvation.
“The fact that tribal leaders were mentioning it to me I find alarming,” Mr. Sharqieh said, “because it means it’s part of the Yemeni consciousness now.”
Confronting this growing desperation, Yemenis, aid agencies and analysts say the cautious response of international donors is inadequate and their demands for better security are unrealistic.
A meeting of the Friends of Yemen in Riyadh in May pledged $4 billion in humanitarian aid, of which $3.25 billion was promised by Saudi Arabia. But promises are one thing, delivery another: Only 46 percent of a U.N. humanitarian appeal for about $450 million in December has been financed.
With conditions worsening, the United Nations is increasing its appeal. The target will soon be raised by 25 to 30 percent and probably even more in coming months, officials said.
But it is unclear where the money will come from. A major donor conference late last month was postponed and may not happen until September.
“Nothing is happening right now, that’s the most alarming,” said Mr. Sharqieh, who said international donors “almost only focus on security and politics” without paying enough attention to the humanitarian and economic situation.
Penny Lawrence, the international director of Oxfam, rejected arguments that the difficult security situation made it impossible to distribute aid or that the country was incapable of absorbing it.
“The aid can get out directly,” Ms. Lawrence said, echoing assessments by workers at Unicef, Save the Children and smaller aid agencies, who say they rely on local networks to reach the most dangerous and remote parts of the country.
She said the international community should focus on direct cash distribution to people because the core problem was not a lack of food, but money.
There are fears that Mr. Hadi could lose hearts and minds over the crisis, which would have dangerous implications. So far he has had some success in restructuring the military and pushing back against militants linked to Al Qaeda. But he has failed to deliver basic services like clean water, electricity and humanitarian assistance.
“His performance on it is zero,” Mr. Sharqieh of Brookings said.
That failure could undermine the Gulf-brokered political deal for a transition to a more popularly based regime.
“He doesn’t have much time,” Mr. Sharqieh said. “His credibility will erode in the capital and political stability is at risk unless he starts delivering soon.”