Yemenis are starving because of war. No natural disaster is responsible. No amount of humanitarian aid can solve the underlying problem. Without an immediate, significant course change, portions of the country, in the 21st century and under the watch of the Security Council, will likely tip into famine. (NB this is a slightly abridged version of the ICG report)
By numbers, Yemen is suffering from the largest food crisis in the world. According to the UN, an estimated seventeen million persons, 60 per cent of the population and three million more than were so afflicted at the start of the year, are food insecure and require urgent humanitarian assistance to save lives. Seven of the country’s 22 governorates are at a phase four emergency food insecurity level, one step away from phase five: famine. Areas affected include both government and Huthi/Saleh controlled governorates. UNICEF reports that 460,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition.
Saudi-led coalition allies repeatedly have hindered the movement of aid and commercial goods to the population. Huthi/Saleh violations are most egregious in the city of Taiz, where their fighters have enforced a full or partial blockade since 2015, with devastating humanitarian consequences. They routinely interfere with the work of humanitarians, at times demanding the diversion of aid to themselves or denying aid workers access to populations in need, revoking visas or even detaining them. They heavily tax all imports into their areas in part to finance the war effort and also run a black market in fuel, enriching military elites while driving prices up for transport of vital commodities.
The Saudi-led coalition has strangled the flow of commodities into the country’s largest and most important port, Hodeida, which is under Huthi/Saleh control. Yemen is over 90 per cent dependent on imports for staple commodities such as wheat and rice; the UN estimates that 80 per cent of all imports for the north currently pass through Hodeida. Under the cover of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 (April 2015), which called for an arms embargo against Huthi/Saleh forces, the Saudi-led coalition aggressively imposed a naval blockade for the first year of the war. Three months after their military intervention, only 15 per cent of pre-war imports were entering the country, prompting UN humanitarian agencies to issue initial famine warnings. Following bureaucratic delays on the part of the Security Council, the coalition and the Yemeni government, the problem was partially resolved in May 2016 through a UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) that led to an easing of restrictions, but by then coalition airstrikes had already damaged the port’s throughput capacity, contributing to long queues and delays.
The situation is about to become much worse, as the coalition appears determined to break a military stalemate that has largely held since September 2015 by attempting to capture the Red Sea coast, including Hodeida. It says that taking the port is necessary to stem the flow of weapons to Huthi/Saleh fighters and to bring them to the bargaining table. This reasoning is questionable, since the Saudi-backed Hadi government, not the Huthi/Saleh bloc, officially rejected the latest peace initiative of the UN special envoy, and the coalition’s navy and the UNVIM already monitor, albeit not perfectly, the port.
The more acute current problem, however, is on the demand side. Notwithstanding mounting challenges, food is still widely available in the markets, including Sanaa. Yet, Yemenis throughout the country increasingly are unable to purchase it. A critical component of the purchasing power crisis is the inability of the central bank to consistently pay public-sector salaries since August 2016. This is a product of shrinking state finances, an acute liquidity crisis and the bank’s inability to move financial resources between areas controlled by conflict parties. The issue has become deeply politicised. Prior to President Hadi’s 19 September decision to move the central bank from Sanaa to Aden, there had been a tacit agreement between the warring sides to allow the institution to function relatively free of interference. Diplomats and economists widely agreed that the bank had remained largely impartial, facilitating the import of an increasingly limited list of basic commodities, protecting the value of the riyal and paying public-sector salaries nationally under increasingly difficult economic circumstances. But this did not last. Without revenues from hydrocarbons, which accounted for approximately half the government’s budget in 2014, or donor support, both solvency and immediate liquidity came under immense strain.
By moving the bank, the government argued, it could prevent the Huthi/Saleh bloc from using central bank funds for its war effort, while allowing the bank to dispense public-sector salaries nationally and stabilise the economy. The bank in Aden has printed much-needed currency to address the liquidity crisis (a move that was blocked by the Hadi government when the bank was in Sanaa); at least 160 billion Yemeni riyals (approximately $640 million) have been delivered to Aden as part of a 400-billion riyal ($1.6 billion) order from a printing company in Russia.
However, there is little transparency as to how the money has been disbursed. Moreover, since the relocation, some salaries have been paid in the south but far fewer in the north, and the banking system has all but collapsed, putting additional pressures on the supply side, as commodity importers can no longer access letters of credit.
More worrying yet, the government has not received a much-needed injection of foreign currency Hadi supporters expected would come from Gulf backers once the bank moved. The small amount of domestic revenue that is generated is not being deposited in central bank accounts, as the country’s various administrative centres are acting autonomously. Neither Huthi/Saleh-controlled territories nor Marib governorate, which is technically controlled by the Hadi government and is the main producer of oil and gas for Yemeni consumption, are making revenues available to the central bank in Aden. The Hadi government is also not depositing oil export revenues from the Masila basin in Hadramout, which came back online in August 2016, and is instead using an external account in Saudi Arabia with no oversight of expenditures.
In the absence of access to foreign exchange, pumping additional riyals into the market would create inflationary pressures.
Addressing the looming famine is a complex challenge that requires immediate action to prevent a worsening of the situation and to deliver lifesaving assistance to those most in need. Yemenis are set to starve as a result of the financial consequences of the war, but this trend can still be arrested and even reversed if political actors choose to do so. The following steps are urgent:
The Saudi-led coalition should halt plans to invade the port of Hodeida.
The Huthi/Saleh authorities, the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led
coalition should work with the UN envoy to reach a deal that allows
technocrats in the central bank in Aden and Sanaa to devise a plan for
the resumption of public-sector salaries nationally,
disbursement of social-welfare cash transfers to the poorest Yemenis and performance of basic banking functions free of political interference until a comprehensive political settlement is reached.
- To be successful, these stopgap measures ultimately must be supplemented and supported by a ceasefire and peace agreement that allow Yemenis the chance to rebuild state institutions and the economy.