A vendor waits for customers at his shop in the old city of Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. Photo: Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua
A vendor waits for customers at his shop in the old city of Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. Photo: Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua

At World's End: Yemen remains the blind spot of liberal rage

By OPINION Time of article published Jan 10, 2017

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Between 7-10 million people don't have enough food and are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and nothing is being done, writes Azad Essa.

It's official: Yemen is now the largest food emergency in the world.

Between 7-10 million people don't have enough food and are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, with two million within this bracket so desperate they face the real prospect of dying from starvation.

These aren’t numbers being pushed by a fractured government looking for aid, or by Yemeni activists calling for an end to the war. According to the Famine Early Warning Network (FEWS), a leading monitor of global food insecurity, if something is not done immediately, Yemen faces a large-scale famine.

Now, the word ‘famine’ is often a turn of phrase used by commoners – me, you, activists – to describe a devastating series of events that lead to a serious lack of food. But famine is not a loose term.

When a body like FEWS talks of famine it means the following: malnutrition rates within the population have exceeded 30 percent, the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons every day and finally, at least 20 per cent of households face food shortages of an extreme kind.

Rarely do humanitarian organisations use ‘famine’ unless they have to even though the declaration carries no binding action on the UN or a member state. That it should warrant immediate emergency action, or a ceasefire in times of conflict is a moot point.

Right now though, the people of Yemen are in desperate need for a show of some human decency.

Since the aerial bombardment led by Saudi Arabia began in March 2015 – at least 10,000 Yemenis have been killed and 44,000 injured. In a country long considered the poorest in the Arab world, with some 15 million people already in need of daily assistance, the war has wrecked an entire nation.

The ongoing wrangle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional dominance has left Yemen tethering at the edge. Qatar, Egypt, Senegal, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and the UAE are all involved, with the help, of course, of American and British firepower.

The conflict has forced people out of their homes, resulted in a collapse of basic services and institutions, and left the majority, unprotected, and completely insecure. It is ultimately the overall dysfunction of the society that results in famine, and not simply the absence of food.

Again, even though there is a shortage of food, it doesn't mean there is none.

In fact, FEWS reports that staple foods are still loosely available in the market but the country's economy is so battered – businesses are closed, government dysfunctional, private enterprise collapsed – that no one has any purchasing power.

And it’s not an uncommon tale. When I briefly entered Somalia, where the dual effects of a drought and an al-Shabab insurgency had left thousands hungry and displaced – I found food ready for purchase in the main marketplace. But very few could afford anything.The drought had maligned the climate for farming, and the war had destroyed the environment for feasible trade. 

So much so that food in the market was so overpriced that it was rendered useless to most. Nearly 260 000 Somalis died in the famine between 2010-12. More than half were children. In 2013, the UN said the humanitarian community’s response had been too slow.

"Responding only when the famine is declared is very very ineffective. Actually about half of the casualties were there before the famine was already declared," Rudi Van Aaken, the deputy head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation for Somalia said at the time.

And yet, today, Yemen is facing a similar ordeal, if not bigger. And nothing is being done.

Yemen's hospitals have long been immersed with emaciated children for months; newspapers across the globe have long featured sunken faces, lifeless dark corpses but with little impact. In October 2016, the UN described the situation as "severe". It said 370 000 children were suffering malnutrition, that 1,5 million were going hungry.

But there is more. Not only does famine threaten survival, it eats at the moral basis of the society.

For instance, it was reported that child marriages were on the rise in Yemen. With incomes so putrid and insecure, parents are being forced to reconsider their options when it came to their daughters of 15 or younger. It is not as if such practices did not exist prior to March 2015, but war has a way of making a bad situation worse. 

This is the cruelty of war. And as a forgotten one, Yemen remains the blind spot of liberal rage.

* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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