Blog From Yemen—The Challenge to Feed Millions And Help Build Their Future

While travelling in Yemen with UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos, WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin saw first-hand the devastating consequences of a hunger crisis affecting more than 10 million people. In her latest blog from the field, she writes about the people she met and the efforts underway to assist them.

SAN’AA (Yemen)—Over the last few days, I traveled across Yemen with Valerie Amos, Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. We witnessed first—hand a looming humanitarian crisis—a crisis that has not made it to the headlines of major news media; mainly overshadowed by political turmoil and violent insurgence. Few people know that more than 10 million people in Yemen—almost half the country’s population—are either hungry or on the edge of hunger with very high rates of food insecurity. Child malnutrition rates are among the highest in the world with close to half of Yemen’s children under 5—around two million children—stunted.

Ertharin Cousin, Valerie Amos and WFP staff check the wheat being offloaded from a ship

Our meetings with the Government of Yemen revealed not only their appreciation for the support of humanitarian assistance, but also their willingness to partner with us to tackle the problem and build a more resilient country. Yemen’s government not only demonstrated a commitment to rebuild the country politically through the National Dialogue, but a genuine will to support relief and recovery activities as well as safety net programs like school feeding for girls. The investment in school feeding is particularly important because not only does it increase school enrolment, but school feeding provides an investment in opportunities for future generations.

Following our government meetings in Sana’a we traveled to Hodeida and Harad in north Yemen near the Saudi Arabian border. Hodeida has the highest malnutrition rates in all of Yemen and there chronic malnutrition affects one in two children especially in the mountainous areas.

At our first stop we watched the offloading of a ship that arrived at the port a few hours earlier carrying 28,000 metric tons of wheat from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The wheat will be milled locally and packaged for distribution to some of the 3.8 million severely food insecure Yemenis who depend on WFP food assistance to get survive.

Two Yemenis women wearing a burka measure the arm of baby Ahmed

From the port we continued on in over 47 degree heat and humidity, to a UNICEF and WFP operated health clinic where not only did we see children whose physical condition clearly evidenced Yemen’s deep problem of malnutrition, but we also saw the sincere dedication and resolve of Yemeni health officials. I saw mothers lined up carrying visibly weak and malnourished children waiting to have these children weighed and measured to provide the clinical evidence necessary to receive 

WFP nutrition supplements. Baby Ahmed was put on the scale and, like any normal child, started screaming impatiently to have his clothes put back on. This health center receives malnutrition referrals from home visits conducted by nurses who walk diligently across the community to detect early cases of malnutrition. 

Because hunger too often has an intergenerational cycle, we also focus our work on the health of pregnant and nursing mothers to meet the nutritional requirements of their children during the critical period in utero and when the mother is breastfeeding so that their children don’t inherit hunger. A chronically malnourished child doesn’t grow to his or her full physical capacity, often resulting in a stunted child. A child who is stunted physically and mentally cannot live to its full potential and just bringing nutritious food to that child is not enough. That is why WFP also works with UNICEF which brings clean water. UNICEF also addresses the needs of children who are severely malnourished, or wasted. At that point, the child’s life is in jeopardy.

Ertharin Cousin and Valerie Amos at the girls school surrounded by men and a woman holding a child

The next stop was a food distribution center at a girls’ school where we observed the distribution of the monthly rations to some of the community’s most vulnerable and food insecure families. I spoke to elderly men and women standing in line to receive their monthly food rations. They told me they are too old to work, don’t have any source of income and that they must live off the assistance they receive from WFP. We have averted a humanitarian disaster by rapidly scaling up our distribution activities, which has given us the ability to feed more people in Yemen. But the conditions we witnessed prove that more still needs to be done.

We then flew from Hodeida and landed in Almazraq camp in Hajjah governorate—home to 20,000 Yemenis displaced by the Sa’adah conflict. We met with representatives of the displaced families who cannot return home because, in their words, they have nothing to return to. They described their home community as chaotic, filled with landmines and insecurity. Mohamed and his family of six invited Valerie and I into their small tent. They showed us the small area where they sleep, eat and play. This family had just been hit by torrential rain which damaged their tents and destroyed their few belongings including their food. UNHCR had recently replaced their tent. Mohamed rightfully complained to me about the conditions in the camp, but his face lit up when I asked him if his children are at school. “Yes they are all attending the school in the camp including the daughters,” he proudly told me.

Ertharin Cousin speaks to a woman with a burka while Velerie Amos and other staff stand behind and listen

Our last stop was an IOM reception center for African migrants. We met with colleagues from UNHCR and IOM working together to meet the emergency shelter and protection needs of the most vulnerable.

Reflecting on my visit, I recognize there is so much that needs to be done for Yemen and its great people. Food is just one of their needs. Without humanitarian efforts and donor community support the people we visited would go hungry. New resilience—building and agricultural value-chain development programs are being designed and implemented with UN and NGO partners. With proper implementation supported by adequate funding, these programs will ensure that we can achieve our shared goal, that the people of Yemen be able to feed themselves and their children and no longer dependent on foreign assistance.