Quick facts: What you need to know about the crisis in Yemen

Yemen, April 27, 2017

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  • Hana'a and her family received food assistance through Mercy Corps. All photos: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps, 2012

It wasn’t the heavy shelling and gunfire that devastated her. It was the loss.

The warfare in Abha’s* village in Yemen had become too intense, forcing her and her family to flee to the city of Taiz. In one fell swoop Abha, 50, her husband, and their four children lost their home, their safety and their independence.

Worse yet, they lost the comfort of knowing where their next meal would come from. With no jobs or income, Abha and her husband started skipping dinner to make their meagre resources last longer. Then there wasn’t enough for anyone in the family to eat dinner. “Most nights we went to bed hungry,” Abha says. “I felt very heavy.”

Prolonged conflict in Yemen has put 18.8 million people like Abha in these same precarious circumstances: out of options and in desperate need. Already 7 million people are in danger of starving to death.

Yemen rarely makes headlines outside of military action in the country, like the recent raid that killed a U.S. Navy SEAL. In fact, this devastating humanitarian disaster has, for years, gone largely unnoticed. But the world can’t afford inaction any longer — too many lives are at risk.

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Below, learn more about what’s happening in Yemen and find out what you can do to help.

Where is Yemen?

Yemen is a country in Western Asia located on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. It’s bordered on two sides by water — the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden — and by Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the east. It is the poorest country in the Middle East, with a total population of 27.4 million.

What is happening in Yemen?

Since 2014, ongoing conflict between government and nongovernment forces has produced a severe humanitarian crisis. The clashes have destroyed public infrastructure and services, like hospitals and schools, blocked access to basic supplies and forced 3.1 million people from their homes. Almost 19 million people — nearly 70 percent of the country’s population — are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, including food, water and medicine.

How did this crisis start?

Yemen has been vulnerable for years. Even before the current conflict, around half the population lived below the poverty line, and the country faced chronic instability, weak governance, underdevelopment, unemployment and hunger.

Where are the world’s hungriest countries? ▸

In late 2014, as the country’s relatively new president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, struggled to remedy his country’s challenges, an armed group called the Houthis moved into the capital city, Sana’a, and took over government institutions. Hadi and other senior government officials fled Yemen after the takeover.

Shortly after, a coalition of a dozen states, led by Saudi Arabia, launched a military campaign to take back Houthi-held areas and restore power to Hadi’s government. The conflict has only heightened since then as each of the warring parties attempts to gain leverage, leading to widespread destruction, displacement and hunger for millions of innocent civilians.

How bad is the hunger crisis in Yemen?

The situation is dire. Yemen imports 90 percent of its food supply but, because of the conflict, only three of eight sea ports are functioning, and goods can’t get in. The main port, Hodeidah — which receives the majority of commercial commodities and humanitarian aid — is only partially open, further preventing supplies from reaching the people who need them most.

The limited food that is available is too expensive for families to purchase — the economy is in shambles and many people have lost their sources of income.

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET), Yemen is the largest food emergency in the world. Food is so scarce that 14 million people don’t have enough to eat, and 7 million are at risk of famine, meaning they could die of starvation.

The United Nations reports already 4.5 million people are malnourished, including 2.1 million children.

What you need to know about famine ▸

In what other ways have people been impacted?

The obstruction of imports means other essentials, like fuel and medical supplies, are also severely limited and cannot be distributed.

More than 14 million people lack access to clean water and sanitation, because pumps and treatment facilities have been damaged, and there isn’t enough fuel to run the water system. This has exacerbated the risk of disease — already a cholera outbreak has been declared. Yet, more than half of the country’s health facilities have been damaged or destroyed, and only 30 percent of the standard medicine imports are making it over the border.

Additionally, much of Yemen’s critical infrastructure, like the power grid and communication towers, has been impaired. And the economy is on the verge of collapse. Around one-quarter of companies in Yemen have completely closed, and 70 percent of laborers have been laid off.

The situation is so disastrous that the United Nations says a child under the age of 5 dies every 10 minutes from preventable causes, including hunger, disease and violence.

The story behind the photos of starving children ▸

How are people surviving?

Put simply: families are suffering. Around 184,000 people have fled to other countries for safety, but millions more are displaced and living in crowded, derelict shelters or damaged homes inside Yemen.

And with few ways to meet their basic needs, families have told us they’ve resorted to reducing the number of meals they eat, limiting portion sizes and eating lower-quality food. FEWSNET classifies nearly the entire country as either in crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity, the phases right before famine when people start to employ these negative coping strategies — skipping meals, selling assets — just to survive.

How is Mercy Corps helping?


Mercy Corps has been providing support — like the water this woman received — in Yemen for years.

We’ve been helping people in Yemen meet their urgent needs and build better lives since 2010. And now, we’re focused on relieving the intense suffering of innocent people caught in the crossfire of this conflict.

We provide food vouchers to the most vulnerable people, like Abha and her family. We also distribute essential supplies like blankets, toothbrushes and soap.

In response to the dramatic increase in child malnutrition, we’re treating malnourished children at mobile health clinics and health facilities, and we’re helping sesame farmers improve their yields and incomes, so they can better support their families.

We’re working to rehabilitate water infrastructure, including water systems, dams and wells. We’re also improving access to water and sanitation in schools and health facilities, as well as providing nutrition and hygiene education so people can keep themselves as healthy as possible.

This work happens in parts of Yemen that have been deeply impacted by the violence. And though our operations have been hampered by ongoing clashes, we remain committed to the Yemeni people.

Staff speak out about work in a conflict zone ▸

And this dedication is changing lives. Because Abha and her husband received vouchers to purchase food, they were able to save some of the money they normally spent on rations and open a small shop selling chickens. The modest income they now make allows them to purchase basic supplies and send their children to school, without having to rely so heavily on aid and loans.

“Thank you,” Abha told us, after receiving the vouchers. “You are protecting us and saving us from hunger. Maybe you are even saving us from death.”

Over the course of the fighting, we’ve helped 1.2 million people like her cope — but so much more must be done.

What else can we do?

The only lasting solution is a peace agreement with a political way forward. But with no sign of the conflict abating, millions of innocent men, women and children need our support more than ever. Urgent humanitarian aid — food, water, 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 and spread the word about the millions of people who needs us.

  • Start a campaign. You can turn knowledge into action by setting up a personal fundraising page and asking your friends and family to contribute to our efforts to help Yemenis fleeing the war.

  • Sign a petition. Tell Congress not to cut international aid. Around the world, people are in need of lifesaving assistance — including those affected by famine. We must continue to support them.

*Name has been changed to protect identity and safety.