Sana’a: Mohammad stands above the tiny, wasted frame of his son Ali, his face a mixture of tenderness and bewilderment. He brought the 18-month-old into hospital nine days ago when he could no longer retain food and liquids. Since then he has been in a crowded child malnutrition ward.
When Yemen’s political crisis began in 2011, the construction company Mohammad worked for closed and he lost his job. Like ten million other Yemenis, he now struggles to meet the soaring cost of food.
Ali is one of the 267,000 Yemeni children estimated by Unicef to be in a state of severe acute malnutrition, reflecting a hunger and public health crisis experts say has been taken to near-catastrophic levels by the clashes and unrest Yemen has experienced since anti-government protests began in February 2011.
“There’s more and more coming in these days,” says Asma Ali, a nurse in the child malnutrition ward in Sana’a. “There were some families whose poverty no one knew about, suddenly they lost their jobs and their incomes, and everything became visible.”
Even before the political crisis which saw Ali Abdullah Saleh eventually step down after 33 years in power, around half of Yemen’s children were growing up with chronic malnutrition, involving stunting and, in some cases, learning difficulties. Yemen has the highest rate of child malnutrition in the world after Afghanistan.
In the months of unrest since Saleh stepped down, the economy has contracted by at least ten per cent according to IMF figures. However, Mohammad Al Maitani, an economist at Sana’a University, says that official figures are misleading and he estimates that GDP has dropped by nearly 30 per cent. With food price inflation running at an average of ten per cent, many families have been pushed over the edge.
Earlier this year, the UN said that over a quarter of a million children in Yemen are facing life-threatening levels of malnutrition.
Unlike in the humanitarian crises in Somalia or Sudan, there is no sudden cut-off of the food supply in Yemen. Food is available in the markets, but poverty-affected families are able to afford less and less of it.
One mother of a severely malnourished child at a Sana’a health centre says that on some days, she and her husband eat just a single can of beans between them. Rather than starving, children are gradually weakening and struggling to fight diseases. Some are dying, though aid agencies have no statistics on this.
“You can’t really say we will have children dying on the street, it’s not easy to see them,” says Raija Sharjan, a nutritionist with the international aid agency Unicef.
There are many factors causing Yemen’s child malnutrition crisis: scarcity of safe drinking water, lack of public services in rural areas and poor public health awareness. But poverty levels, which are estimated to have increased by ten per cent since the start of Yemen’s political crisis according to Abdo Saif, of the United Nations Development Programme in Yemen, exacerbates all the other factors.
Sharjan recalls one severely malnourished little girl brought in to a hospital in Sana’a a few weeks ago by her grandmother after her father had declared he was going to have to let her die because he could not afford the costs of transporting her to the nearest hospital.
Yemen’s government has said that poverty reduction and food security are a top priority, but the scale of socioeconomic problems in the country would be difficult for a united, functional government to address, let alone one that is in the midst of a complicated transition process and facing multiple armed insurgencies, such as Yemen’s.
“The situation is very difficult — in spite of the progress in the political process, my fear is that the economic situation may hinder the political process if there is no immediate intervention,” says Al Maitani. “People can wait for equality, but they can’t bear with hunger, that’s why insecurity today is worse than any time before.”
Meanwhile in the Sana’a hospital, staff are struggling to find enough beds for the malnourished children being brought in.
“For us it was a crazy year, but at least we could afford three meals a day,” says Sharjan, recalling the factional clashes that have left parts of the capital scarred with bullet holes. “Who paid the price? The most vulnerable — children under five.”