There is a plethora, these days, of articles, blogs, emails, facebook entries and tweets about the dire state of poverty and hunger in Yemen. Not that Yemen was prosperous before the Arab Spring. It has always been one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita GDP of $2,300 (Dh8,459), placing the nation at No 185 on a list of 226. For comparison, Somalia is No 222 with a GDP of $600, while at the other end of the scale, Canada comes in at No 20 with a per capita GDP of $41,000. Other criteria of the desperate state of Yemen would be its infant mortality rate of 53.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with five in Canada, and 15 in Oman next door! Add to that a literacy rate of only 50 per cent compared with 81 per cent in Oman.
With a population of 24 million, it has always had limited potential for rain-dependent agriculture and scarce underground water resources, which are unevenly exploited, causing them to deplete rapidly, with rumours of Yemen running out of water within eight years. This is compounded by mismanagement of these limited resources and uneven distribution — not to mention the fact that so much water is diverted to growing qat, the green leaf that millions of Yemenis chew every afternoon, as a social pastime, and which is devoid of any nutritional or other value. Campaigns to eliminate, or even reduce qat consumption, have come and gone without much success.
Food prices are rising worldwide, not just in Yemen. The steep rise of the cost of living, especially since the uprising against Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, has also meant a higher cost of diesel fuel to operate irrigation systems. Long and frequent power each day have compounded the problem.
When that happens, people have either to move to cities, already crowded with the destitutes, in order to find food and shelter, or they have to depend on their young men to somehow find work in urban areas and send money to the villages — not an easy task when unemployment is already extremely high. There is no robust social security or welfare system in the country to sustain the literally starving children and adults. Many families barely survive on donations from richer families, but even in dire poverty, Yemenis have a sense of dignity and pride that make many of them starve in silence, rather than beg, for that would shame them in their view.
The first thing that we all did the moment we were born was to cry, as we left the warmth of the uterus, to face the colder room air. And ever since, babies have always expressed their hunger and thirst by screaming their heads off. TV screens repeatedly show us video clips of totally emaciated infants, who do not even have enough energy to cry, withered down to skin and bone, their fly-covered big eyes staring helplessly at the camera. We saw them previously in the Horn of Africa, but hardly ever in Yemen.
Whenever that level of mass starvation occurs, one sees populations crossing borders to neighbouring countries. The estimate of Yemen’s Internally Displaced People (IDP) is 400,000. But Yemenis are unfortunate in that their major urban centres are far away from foreign borders, such as Oman and Saudi Arabia, separated mostly by desert, not that they would be admitted even if they managed to reach those borders. Ironically, it is estimated that there are about 200,000 Somali refugees in Yemen, mainly at the southern Kharaz camp, but they have access to regular food and basic necessities, which internally displaced Yemenis cannot get.
In the midst of all this, the governments of Yemen and the world seem to have forgotten that such situations of extreme starvation, displacement and hopelessness are exactly where social upheaval, violence and terrorism thrive. They are all busy fighting terrorism either with regular Yemeni military forces or with American drones, at enormous cost, when such funds should be re-directed towards saving the lives and ameliorating the sufferings of millions of starving Yemenis; for it is estimated that ten million Yemenis, about 40 per cent of the population, are what is termed “food-insecure”.
And while this is all happening, we read about the numerous visits by the Yemeni minister of this and minister of that portfolio, flying first class to all sorts of Arab and non-Arab capitals, coordinating the fight against Al Qaida, when they should be ensuring basic food, water and sanitation for those forgotten and neglected Yemenis.
Let’s keep in mind that the starving people of Yemen do not break their fast with a huge spread of the richest food money can buy at sunset — their fast lasts the full 24 hours.
Dr Qais Ghanem is a retired neurologist, radio show host, poet and novelist. His two novels are Final Flight from Sana’a and Two Boys from Aden College. He lives in Canada