‘Unprecedented disaster’: A Q&A on the crisis overwhelming Yemen

Yemen, July 24, 2017

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  • Two years of war in Yemen have displaced 3 million people and put more than 6 million on the brink of starvation. Mercy Corps is providing immediate assistance to help people stay healthy, earn money, and meet their most urgent needs. All photos courtesy Mercy Corps staff.

The war in Yemen has spiraled into the largest humanitarian crisis on earth: More than 3 million people have been displaced and more than 40,000 people have been killed or injured. In total, more than 18 million people in Yemen need humanitarian assistance—that's 65 percent of the country's population, and 4 million more than the crisis in Syria. This devastating emergency has left more people in need than the entire population of New England.

What is life like inside one of the world’s worst conflicts? Learn more in this Q&A with our Interim Country Director for Yemen, Chinthaka deSilva, and our Programme Officer for Middle East and Migration Response, Alexa Schmidt.

How Yemen became the biggest disaster no one knows about  ▸

Describe the situation you’re seeing on the ground. Why are people suffering?


Chinthaka: Yemen is in the grip of a fast-spreading cholera outbreak of unprecedented scale. As of June 28, there were 254,871 suspected cases and 1,439 deaths. In May, the Ministry of Health and Population declared a state of emergency stating that the health system is unable to contain this health and environmental disaster. More than 280,000 additional cases are projected from high-risk districts in the next six months.

The situation is further aggravated by a high prevalence of severe food insecurity and malnutrition. The health of vulnerable populations is already compromised, making them more susceptible to cholera and associated complications. Two years of conflict—compounded by an economic decline—have devastated livelihoods, depleted safety nets and weakened social services.

The southern governorates have not experienced direct fighting since August 2015, yet the humanitarian situation is dire and continuously deteriorating, as every household is still impacted by the violence and the economic crisis. In addition to the ongoing heavy fighting and airstrikes taking place, there is a huge influx of internally displaced people [IDPs] from ground clashes in the cities of Taiz, Mocha and Dhubab.

A lack of internal security has led to eruptions of violence, armed individuals, drugs and gender-based violence in cities. Many people have been injured by direct ground conflicts during the war; others were injured by landmines after the war.

The social fabric in Yemen is still reforming due to the influx of IDPs, refugees and host communities. A considerable number of adolescents are not living with both parents as the social structures and protective systems have disintegrated.

Years of conflict have decimated crops across Yemen and led to a massive food crisis. Mercy Corps is training farmers and providing seeds to help them get back on their feet and strengthen their communities.

How is Mercy Corps responding to this crisis?


Alexa: Since 2010, Mercy Corps has been reducing tensions between communities, creating economic opportunities for vulnerable households, and improving families’ ability to weather recurring shocks. Mercy Corps has also been implementing sanitation and hygiene programmes as well as cash-for-work programmes for IDPs and host communities.

Mercy Corps has engaged in food voucher distributions since 2012. Since the start of the war in 2015, Mercy Corps has responded to people’s basic needs, while also working to strengthen the agricultural sector and reduce rural poverty in order to improve food security longer term.

Cash transactions are a fast, flexible way to help people meet their urgent needs and support their local markets.

Are there any people you have met who particularly moved you?


Chinthaka: While looking into the eyes of people in the poor, devastated communities who are living on less than $1 per day, I met an old man named Kasem at one of our cash distributions.

Kasem and three of his neighbors in the village just received £90 USD from Mercy Corps for each of their families. Although these people desperately need every penny, they gathered the money and donated it to their neighbour who was just diagnosed with cholera to cover his travel expenses to the nearest cholera treatment centre, which is a two-hour drive from their village.

Why cash is the most effective way to reach people in crisis ▸

What is the most heartbreaking thing you’ve seen?


Chinthaka: Adolescent girls are full of energy, motivation and great ideas, and they have such potential to contribute to the development of the country. Sadly, there are so many examples where this potential is not used—or even worse, when girls are deprived of their rights and ill-treated.

Faida, a 15-year-old girl, was displaced by conflict with her parents and five of her siblings. Together, they all moved into one small room in their uncle’s house. Faida was forced to quit school so she could walk five kilometers every day for water and firewood. On her way back and forth between the villages, she was often harassed by strangers.

Finally, her father decided to marry her off to her cousin. Two months later her husband joined an armed group and was killed, leaving her abandoned with an unborn child. Now she is living in a cave with one of her younger siblings. She says, “I cannot sleep during night; the cave has no doors to lock me in from perpetrators.”

Due to the war, conditions of Yemeni women and girls are deteriorating. The stress and turmoil of the crisis, coupled with deep-rooted gender inequality, have left girls extremely vulnerable to violence, abuse and exploitation.

Severe gender inequality leaves Yemeni women and girls particularly vulnerable to violence and abuse, including on their journeys to gather water. Mercy Corps is restoring clean water access and promoting health and hygiene so women can find water close to home and keep their families healthier.

How does this crisis affect women and children in particular?


Alexa: As many as 10 percent of households in Yemen are female-headed. These households are especially vulnerable to shocks and stresses due to a culture that places restrictions on women’s ability to participate in the economic sector. Since the crisis began, 92 percent of women report having no regular monthly income, compared to 16 percent of men.

Another challenging trend is an increase in the number of pregnant and lactating women, up nearly twofold—to 44 percent today—as a result of women not having access to contraceptives and basic health services.

Children are among the most vulnerable in a crisis, suffering from malnutrition, poor health, and a lack of education. Interventions like cash assistance, cash-for-work opportunities, clean water restoration, and health and hygiene promotion help parents and kids build a stronger future.

For women who are at home in places that are suffering, it’s much harder to go get what they need. All those daily transactions become so much more dangerous and life threatening. It becomes a calculation: “Is it worth going farther away where the water is cleaner, or do I just go somewhere nearby because the likelihood of a strike is smaller?”

When it comes to children, malnourishment and the developmental issues that come with it can have a long-term impact on national development. We’ve talked about this a lot in regards to Syria: Young people don’t develop cognitive function when they are malnourished, and though you can’t quantify the impact of that down the road, an entire generation is hindered in many ways because of the war.

Why is it important to focus on long-term approaches in a food crisis?


Alexa: As an example, one of our programmes is a microenterprise programme for small farmers, where the emphasis is on longer-term food security. Crops and arable land have been decimated by the war, which will undermine longer-term recovery efforts. That’s the root cause of the food crisis. To give out food and Plumpy’Nut butter [a nutrient-dense paste] only solves that day’s, or that week’s, or that month’s needs.

But those longer-term things—when we can do them, where it’s secure enough or where we’re able to get crops in the ground—are especially important, because people need to have food growing for when things stabilise.

Though it’s critical to provide immediate food and cash assistance in a crisis, interventions that grow food, create jobs and look to the future are the best way to strengthen communities for the long-term.

What role does water play in a food crisis?


Alexa: The hard thing about waterborne disease is that when people are malnourished they don’t have the capacity to fend off diseases like cholera. People’s vulnerability to diseases is magnified when they are starving.

The threat of famine, combined with the lack of infrastructure, has sort of resulted in this perfect storm of people being malnourished to begin with and not having the infrastructure to get clean water. So a disease like cholera, which would normally not spread so rapidly, is now affecting upwards of 300,000 people. There are 5,000 new cholera cases per day, when it wasn’t an issue a year ago.

Water tanks like this one give communities a safe, local access point to find clean water. Without them, diseases like cholera can run rampant through communities and cause massive health crises.

What is the relationship between conflict and food insecurity?


Alexa: In Yemen, conflict has decimated the capacity of the state to provide services. In the last two years, Yemen’s GDP has dropped by about 35 percent, resulting in the government no longer paying government salaries and pensions, which affects close to one-quarter of the Yemeni population.

The UN estimates that the fishing and agriculture sectors have been reduced by 65 and 50 percent respectively. Water supply infrastructure has gone into disrepair because of conflict, overuse by IDP populations, and the lack of funding for maintenance. Lack of income, decreased food production, and displacement are all consequences of war that affect food security.

The story behind photos of starving children ▸

What do you want people to know that’s not being shown in the media?


Alexa: We have a great opportunity to tap into the energy of youth. We can use their potential to help stimulate struggling local economies while keeping them focused on building productive lives. If young men and women are able to create and engage in economic activities, then they will be able to lead productive lives that contribute to the resilience and stability of the communities where they live.

Additionally, modernizing and improving the productivity of Yemen’s agricultural sector will increase rural incomes and provide better nutrition to the population. Mercy Corps is helping to develop a nutritious and commercially viable sesame value chain that will improve the incomes of as many as 3,000 farmers and 500 processors, while improving food security through increased food production of highly nutritious sesame products.

Chinthaka: Regardless of their different races, ethnicities, political views, origins and education levels, the Yemeni people all agree on one thing: this war should stop immediately. Although before the war Yemen was the poorest country in the region, this war dragged the country three decades back.

This country has been gifted abundantly by nature. It has the longest coast on the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. It has beautiful tourist areas, as well as fuel and gas reservoirs. The majority of the population is still resilient and coping, but it will not last long.

How you can help

Millions of innocent men, women and children in Yemen need our support more than ever. Urgent humanitarian aid including food, water and medical care is vital to their survival. Here’s how you can help:

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more food, water, shelter and support to Yemeni families and people in crisis around the world.

  • Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page or Twitter page and spread the word about the millions of people who need us.