A well-planned attack by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants on the intelligence services headquarters in the southern port city of Aden this past weekend underscores the country’s beleaguered security situation. Yet as alarming as the terrorist threat is, Yemen’s increasingly precarious humanitarian crisis is also cause for concern. Rising food prices in particular are pushing more families to the brink of desperation.
In May, I wrote about how 267,000 children were facing life-threatening malnutrition; in July, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) predicted that in the next few months, one million children in Yemen could suffer severe malnutrition. The WFP also estimates that half of Yemen’s population is malnourished.
The effect of food insecurity and conflict on Yemen’s young population is a pressing concern, as the Washington Post reported. As Geert Cappelaere, Yemen’s UNICEF director, said in an interview with the newspaper, “Development gains have been erased. In some areas, they have gone back five to ten years…Today, we’re like a fire brigade, extinguishing one fire but never sure it will not start again tomorrow. And while we are responding to one fire, there are three other fires starting elsewhere.”
As in other places around the world, food insecurity in Yemen is linked to food prices. In an interview last month, Ramiro Lopes Da Silva, the deputy executive director of the World Food Programme noted that in Yemen, there is still food in the markets. “…the issue is not an issue of availability; the issue is an issue of access because a large segment of the population does not have the purchasing power.” Both food prices and poverty have risen an estimated 10 percent this year; some reports indicate that the price of staples like rice is up 60 percent.
A recent paper from researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) also draws the connection between rising food prices and conflict in Yemen. The paper argues that violence in Yemen before 2008 could be “…attributed to inter-group conflict between ethnically and religiously distinct groups,” but that “starting in 2008, increasing global food prices triggered a new wave of violence that spread to the endemically poor southern region with demands for government change and economic conditions.” To reduce the opportunity for terrorism, NECSI researchers argue, Yemen must address its high food prices.
Food is not the only commodity driving conflict in Yemen. As I wrote in May, Yemen is facing severe water shortages: by 2017, Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, could run out of water. Yemen’s government, besieged by security and political problems, appears unable to implement available solutions to the water crisis. However, it also goes without saying that water shortage can lead to additional conflict, as it already has among Yemen’s nomadic ethnic groups, for instance. In Sana’a, long queues at the water pump have led to tensions between refugees and local residents.
Next month, another international donors meeting will take place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
During the last Friends of Yemen meeting held in Riyadh in May, Saudi Arabia pledged $4 billion in support for the impoverished country. In another positive sign, the United States also increased its aid to Yemen to $337 million, its largest foreign assistance package yet to that country. While nearly half of that assistance is going to aid the security forces and fight terrorism, $110 million is for humanitarian purposes and another $68 million is to aid the transition and improve the economy.
In a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations a few weeks ago, Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan referenced the open letter that a number of Yemen experts wrote to President Obama (I was one of the signers) warning that Washington is too focused on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to the exclusion of Yemen’s broader political, economic, and social ills. I recommend reading Brennan’s remarks at CFR since he provides a good overview of Yemen’s difficulties today and provides the outline of a sensible, sustained commitment to that country that addresses its humanitarian and economic development needs, political transition, and security concerns. Terrorism is of course an urgent issue in Yemen, but it is intertwined with Yemen’s deep economic issues.