OPINION: Time is running out to avert yet further catastrophic famine in Yemen

by Nabil Hayel Saeed Anam | HSA Group
Wednesday, 18 May 2022 07:00 GMT

A worker carries a sack of wheat flour during the distribution of food aid by the local charity, Mona Relief, in Sanaa, Yemen April 24, 2022. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

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Without substantive changes in approach, there is an immediate risk that wheat supplies into Yemen will not meet the minimum levels needed to prevent hundreds of thousands more people being pushed into famine.

Nabil Hayel Saeed Anam is managing director of HSA Group, Yemen Region and a board director of HSA Group.

Today, foreign ministers from across the world will come together at the United Nations in New York to seek urgent solutions to the global food security crisis.

Recent shocks to commodity markets, first generated by the conflict in Ukraine, have shaken the foundations of the world’s supply chains. Prices have increased dramatically and states have sought to shore up supplies to meet their own domestic needs, putting in place protectionist measures such as export bans.

These dynamics only serve to threaten vulnerable countries facing growing levels of food insecurity.

The effects of these shocks have been felt no more keenly than in Yemen – the world’s worst humanitarian crisis – where more than half the population were already suffering from food insecurity even before the price spikes generated by the conflict in Ukraine and India’s recent export ban on wheat.

The prices of wheat, edible oils, fuel and other commodities have sky-rocketed this year, hitting highs not seen since the global financial crisis in 2008. But while these challenges are affecting populations all over the world, the countries most in need will be the first on the breadline and the worst affected by far.

Even before the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, food affordability (as measured by the average cost of a minimum food basket (MFB)) worsened significantly in Yemen over the course of 2021. Between January – December 2021, MFB costs increased by up to 119% in some areas of Yemen according to the World Food Programme.

Based on the current trajectory, that could pale in comparison to rises in 2022.

In Yemen, the population relies on the private sector for their food, 90% of which is imported. The latest developments unfolding are dismaying.

As global wheat prices spiral out of control due to shortages and export bans, the Yemeni Rial continues to depreciate, leaving the private sector at the centre of a perfect storm of shrinking purchasing power.

Without access to external financing or foreign exchange and faced with restrictive payment terms, Yemeni businesses cannot afford to place orders they need to keep bread on the tables of Yemeni communities.

This is in addition to the internal challenges that Yemeni businesses face – such as navigating damaged supply and distribution lines and a fragmented banking system.

These hurdles cannot be overcome solely through humanitarian relief. Many of the international aid operations in Yemen are supplied by the private sector, with importers bringing wheat into the country and milling it for later distribution.

Without a reliable and sufficient supply of wheat, underfunded humanitarian aid programmes will not be able to cover the shortfall and millions will be left to starve.

As world leaders in New York turn their gaze to the issue of global food security, Yemen and similar states must be at the centre of these discussions.

Without urgent international action and a set of workable solutions, vulnerable countries – such as Yemen – will be the first to witness the emptiness of famine reflected in the eyes of their children and loved ones.

And without a substantive change in approach, there is an immediate risk that wheat supplies into Yemen will not meet the minimum levels needed to prevent hundreds of thousands more people being pushed into famine.

To mitigate the effects of rising global wheat prices, private sector organisations require urgent, priority access to wheat supplies and new financing mechanisms – such as an emergency food import finance facility – to secure stocks for the immediate future. They also need more time to pay, with extended payment terms on wheat contracts to increase purchasing power in the short-term and meet the requirements of the Yemeni market.

Time is running out for Yemen. According to the United Nations, 161,000 people in Yemen will face extreme hunger levels by next month. But this figure might be optimistic.

It is clear that the time for sweeping international declarations of intent is over.

Food insecure countries need innovative and workable solutions that will enable international organisations to work with the private sector to secure sufficient supplies of wheat quickly and sustainably.

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