Yemen is at risk of falling into a deeper humanitarian crisis akin to Somalia’s descent as political unrest has made it more difficult for many struggling Yemenis to afford food, United Nations officials said.
“Yemen is on the verge of a true humanitarian disaster… it’s at risk of becoming the new Somalia on the political and humanitarian level,” Geert Cappelaere, the U.N. Children’s Fund’s representative for Yemen, told a news briefing.
Somalia is reeling from a combination of famine and fighting between Western-backed troops and al Qaeda-linked rebels fighting in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation. Some 3.7 million Somalis are at risk of starvation, the United Nations says, Reuters reports.
Since January, Yemeni protesters, inspired by revolts elsewhere in the Arab world, have demanded an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33 years of autocratic rule.
On Monday Saleh welcomed a U.N. Security Council resolution urging him to adopt a Gulf-mediated plan for him to transfer power, Yemen’s state news agency reported.
Yemen already has the world’s second highest malnutrition rate after Afghanistan, affecting nearly a third of the poorest Arab state’s 24 million people, Cappelaere said.
“Over 50 percent of children under the age of five are suffering from chronic malnutrition in Yemen today,” he added.
Like other Gulf Arab nations, Yemen relays heavily on food imports as only 2.5 percent of land is arable, said Lubna Alaman, country director for the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) in Yemen.
“At the very best Yemen can only produce around 30 percent of its food needs, because of limited arable land which makes it very reliant on imports,” Alaman told Reuters on the sidelines of the news briefing.
Access to food is the main challenge, she added.
“It’s not a matter of food production, it’s access, people are not making enough money to buy food that’s in the markets, so increasing the employment rate is the sustainable solution.”
Economic hardship is also part of the impetus that drives many to protest — some 40 percent of Yemenis live on less than $2 a day, Alaman said.
Since the start of the unrest this year, Yemen’s economy has appeared on the brink of collapse, and with the decline of its hydrocarbon exports that represent 60 percent of income, availability of food is at an even greater risk.
The current unrest needs to settle down in order to start the recovery phase, Alaman said.
The WFP is seeking $159 million for Yemen this year, while next year $200 million is expected to be needed.