In Yemen, plenty of food but few have the cash to buy it
Yemenis are on the brink of what the UN says could be the worst famine in history, not because of a lack of food but mass, dire poverty as the value of the rial has plunged
In the city of Al Mukalla, two or three pieces of chapati bread immersed in tea and mixed with milk is the breakfast for the four children of Ahlam. When their tummies gurgle at lunchtime, the Yemeni mother cooks rice and boils potatoes. She adds a pinch of salt and pepper and hot sauce to the potatoes to make their lunch tasty.
“I am patient and will never give up patience,” Ahlam told Asia Times in a groaning voice. Before serving the lunch, she puts aside some of the food for dinner.
Ahlam, 47, has been living in abject poverty for years. Things turned worse more than one year ago when her husband contracted prostate cancer, which sucked up his savings and left him unable to leave his bed. He died several months ago, leaving Ahlam to fend for herself and her four children, as well as three children from another wife who lives separately.
“I have never let my children go hungry. When there is little food, I let them eat it and I drink a cup of water and sleep,” the mother said, her hair covered in a red scarf.
The pension from Ahlam’s husband is 30,000 Yemeni rial (less than $43), which does not cover the monthly expenses of the large family. To secure monthly food for the children, aged between four and 15 years old, she roams around her neighborhood looking for shopkeepers who sell goods on credit.
“I pay them when I receive the salary. When prices of goods increased, many shopkeepers refuse to sell items on account.”
Ahlam’s house is one floor and made of cement brick. The roof is covered with assembled sheets of steel that allow rain to seep into the house. The weak mother and her children live in a densely populated district in the city of Mukalla, the capital of Yemen’s southeastern province of Hadramout. The coastal city is known for its vibrant fish market, where different kinds of fresh fish are sold.
For Ahlam and thousands of other poor families in Yemen, this important source of protein rarely appears on their food plates due to high prices. A kilo of tuna is sold for 2,500 Yemen rials ($3.60). The lack of nutritious meals has left its mark on the voice and body of Ahlam and her children.
The mother is visibly emaciated and looks as if she is an elderly woman. The children are weak too and suffering from growth disorders according to their mother. “Food is available in the market, but we cannot afford to buy it,” she said.
The war effect
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of allied countries that launched a ruthless aerial bombardment against the Iran-backed northern Yemen Houthi militia. The war has started to shift in favor of the internationally-recognized Yemeni government and has halted the Houthis’ rapid military expansion. But thousands of airstrikes have flattened schools, hospitals, roads, and military camps across the country.
To prevent rebels from getting advanced arms from Iran, the Saudis launched a land, sea and air embargo on Houthi-held areas, pushing millions of people on the brink of mass starvation.
The United Nations’ humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, recently told the Security Council that a major famine is looming in Yemen as millions cannot secure food. The global body already describes Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.
The Trump administration, under growing scrutiny for supporting the coalition with arms, intelligence and refueling Saudi jets mid-air, called on Wednesday for a halt to the conflict.
“The time is now for a cessation of hostilities,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
Tens of thousands of public servants have not been paid since September 2016 when the Saudi-led backed Yemeni government relocated the central bank headquarters from the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa to the southern city of Aden.
In the port city of Mukalla, which is under the control of the Yemeni government, the situation is as bleak as other areas. Thousands of internally displaced people live in miserable conditions. The number of beggars in the streets has increased considerably over the last couple of years. Relief workers say people now knock on doors or call fellow citizens to ask for help.
“People are suffering silently. There could be a famine, as people cannot afford to buy food,” Omer Bashan, a local aid worker, told Asia Times.
The humanitarian situation has been exacerbated by rapid devaluation of the Yemeni currency. The rial traded at 215 to the dollar in 2015 when the war began but it has dropped to almost 700 now. This plunge of the currency pushed the prices of basic food items through the roof. Some public servants who receive their salaries on time complain that their wage has lost more than half of its value as the government has not approved any increase since the beginning of the war.
When the public servant Ashraf Omer was employed in 2008, his salary was 45,000 rials and worth $210. Now, it is 52,000 but worth only $75. “My salary evaporates within an hour,” the 38-year-old teacher told Asia Times at his simple house.
To keep his family of 11 members afloat, Omer was forced to find another job. He has had to scrap expensive food like meat from his monthly shopping list and put an end to family picnics.
“In the past, we used to buy bags of rice, sugar and milk,” he said, adding that he now buys flour, milk and rice by the kilo and on credit.
As people struggle to cope with deteriorating living standards, the Yemeni government appears unable to prevent the currency from falling further. But it announced that it would provide local traders with “subsidized dollars” so they can continue to import essential goods.
Residents, traders and government officials are stuck in the same dilemma, saying the country is not suffering a shortage of food, but a lack of cash.
“There is food security, but people cannot afford to buy it due to the fall of the currency,” Faris Bin Hilabi, a local wheat trader, told Asia Times, adding that excessive bureaucracy by the central bank has hindered traders from receiving the “subsidized dollars” on time.
“We buy the dollars at more than 700 rials while the central bank promised to give us the dollar for 585 rials,” Bin Hilabi explained. But he added: “We would not stop importing goods even if the currency keeps falling.”
For Ahlam and Ashraf, if their tight financial situation persists, they will be forced into even greater misery.
“I would rather skip meals or drinking water than go out and beg people for money,” Ahlam said.