Food crisis cause mass starvation in Yemen [Archives:2008/1155/Business & Economy]

May 15 2008

By: YemenTimes Staff
The image of hundreds of Yemenis lining up in front of the branches of the Yemeni Economic Corporation to buy subsidized wheat is only an indicator of the critical food shortage on the dinner tables of the Yemeni people, 40% of whom are already living under the poverty line of 2 dollars per day. The doubling wheat prices have further taken away a larger chunk of the limited income of Yemenis, especially those who used to barely afford the limited quantities of food, and now they have to dig deeper into their pockets to be able to maintain the purchase of the same quantities of food, while many Yemenis are not successful in doing that, more Yemeni infants are malnourished, and larger numbers of Yemen's children go starving.

The World Food Program's Country Director in Yemen Mohammed El-Kouhene has stated previously that program is facing difficulty maintaining its food aid to Yemen, stating that the price hikes resulted in a funding gap of US$ 28 million in order to allow the program to maintain its food aid to Yemen. He also added that the price hikes and drought has resulted in pushing another 6 % of Yemen's population under the poverty line only during the last three months, which accounts for 1.2 million Yemenis.

Furthermore, the locations hardest hit are rural areas with high population density, mainly the governorates of Hodieda, Taiz, and Ibb. These three governorates are home to roughly one third of the population, which rely on agriculture and have been negatively affected by last year's drought in terms of agricultural output, in turn income and production of grains.

Food Insecurity

The results of the Official household survey revealed that 17.6 percent of the population is unable to get the minimum level of daily calorie requirement in their diet, and that 87 percent of the people living on less than US$ 2 per day reside in the country side and are most vulnerable and worst affected. Such indicators point to the difficulty in achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and that more intense and increasing efforts are needed to improve food security, and reducing levels of malnutrition indicators in Yemen especially among the young.

Additionally, Statistical indicators show the widespread malnutrition among children and infants. Survey results revealed that about 52% of children under five years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition. This percentage even increases to reach 56% of the children living in rural areas, comparing to 40% of children living in urban areas. The percentage also varies among regions, as it reaches around 42% in coastal regions, 59% in the mountainous regions, and 53% in the plateaus and desert territories.

Furthermore, the proportion of underweight children amounts to 46% of the total number of children. The figure reaches 50% in rural areas compared to a rate of 36% in the urban areas. This percentage increases to reach 52.1% in the mountainous regions, and relatively decreases to reach 46% coastal areas and 43.2% in desert and plateaus areas.

The reason for deterioration in levels of nutrition to several economic factors such as low income levels, the disruption of families dependent on the returns of agricultural production affected most recently by the drought, the high rate of inflation and the skyrocketing food prices, and in addition to that the allocation of a relatively high part of household expenditure on consumption of Qat. Statistics show that Qat accounts an average of 11.2% of expenditure against 52.9% of expenditure for food.

Food Production

In this regard, official reports suggest that there has been an increase in consumption of food in general and of grains in particular, due to the increase in population growth (about 20 million people). Moreover, consumption patterns are in constant change with an increase of consumption during the month of Ramadan. However, there has been a decline in domestic production of grains from about 765.3 thousand tons in 1990 to 672.2 tons in 2000, parallel to that a decline was seen in the growing lands of grains from 844.8 thousand hectares to 619.6 thousand hectares during the same period. Despite that, there has been an expansion of agricultural areas from 1,121 thousand hectares in 1990 to 1,280 thousand hectares. This increase of 14% was in the areas of cereal crops and what constitute a comparative advantage of vegetables and fruits, cash crops and fodder. The areas planted with vegetables increased from 52 thousand hectares to 62 thousand hectares during the same period and an increased production was also witnessed from 696 thousand tons to 766 thousand tons.

Critical Food Situation

Some troubling signals emerged during this year which may lead to a catastrophe for the Yemeni citizens manifested in the sudden and continues rise of prices of commodities in the Yemeni market, especially in the basic commodities (wheat-rice-flour-sugar).

For instance, price of bread increased 100% in some cities of Yemen, particularly in the city of Hodeida, where the price of bread has skyrocketed 100% of its former price, and hence the selling price rose from five riyals to ten riyals without any increase to the weight of the bread. The reason behind that was said to be the increase of flour price from 2700 Rials for 50 Kg two years ago to 7200 Rials before now. As such we face a challenge to secure food which requires the improvement of our natural resources productivity in both high production areas and margin areas and paying attention to the provision of food in all areas where the nexus between the spread of poverty among the population and the fluctuation in production rise from one year to another.

Food Imports

According to economists, it constitutes a huge risk for Yemen to continue to depend on imports to solve food consumption problems, as imports of grains and its derivatives increased from about US$ 218.59 million in 1990 to over US$ 313.04 million in 2005. Moreover, the rate of self-sufficiency of grains accounted for only 37.6%, while an increase of imported food rose from US$ 537.74 million in 1990 to more than US$ 726.56 million this year which leave us in a critical situation of food security.

Future Challenges

Official reports confirm that Yemeni government faces several challenges due to the population growth and consumption volume increase where the problem is not only about the increase of the price of the bread, but extends to other issues which will require improvement of the food security level in Yemen. Some of these challenges are:

– The weakness of food crops efficiency and productivity, limited availability of agricultural and veterinary services and the weak attention paid to the development of the capacities of rural women.

– The scarcity of capabilities and the absence of any forms of encouraging the cultivation of food crops which require less water.

– Limited opportunities for financing and lending to agricultural producers, fishermen, rural development projects, and productive assets and modern technical possession.

– Difficulty in the maintenance and rehabilitation of agricultural terraces and the limitation of soil erosion and desertification.

– The weakness of capabilities to develop rural areas and to improve the living conditions of the population in rural areas.

– The absence of policies that limit Qat growing areas, which has been grown at the expense of food crops due to its attractive high returns in comparison to food crops returns.

– Low level of coverage for health care services, maternal and child health, particularly in rural areas of Yemen and the limited support for nutrition programs, school health and the basic services to the family health.

The government and the private sector actions towards the provision of adequate food

The Yemeni government adopted many policies and programs designed to raise the food security level in the context of many national documents for the coming years, however, its efforts with the private sector failed to stop the escalation of the sudden rise in prices. The private sector justified the rising prices with the increase of costs in the transfer of food to the local markets, however, this claim was denied by the ministries of transport, trade and industry.

The Yemeni government confirms its efforts towards securing food for citizens at suitable prices; however, indicators show an exacerbation of the crisis which is very alarming and disturb the living society of Yemen which has become very dependent on the provision of nutrition from grains imported from abroad and by the private business sector.

On the other hand, the private sector seems to careless upon the rise in prices in the Yemeni market despite the fact that the goods supply is much more than the demand and justify that with the rise in global prices, claims that were also denounced strongly by the General Consumer Protection Authority. Therefore, the government plays a major role and is supposed to undertake studied mechanisms to overcome the problem of food security in the future and activating its plans in this area, those include:

– The Third Five-Year Plan for economic and social development which aims at increasing agricultural production in order to contribute to a higher level of food security, and to improve farm income and the alleviation of poverty and reduction of unemployment.

– Strategic agricultural and food security which aims at the enhancement of food production, the improvement of statistical information on the agricultural sector, the removal of price distortions, the enhancement of market efficiency, increasing income support for the poorest, and to enhance the efficiency of social assistance for the poor.

– Public health strategy under the Second Five-Year Plan, which aims at raising the level of coverage for health services through a variety of health programs to combat malnutrition, reducing infant mortality and upgrading services programs of maternal and child health.

– The Strategy for Poverty Alleviation which seeks to achieve many goals such as upgrading social services specially health care services, through the application of the health areas, focusing in rural areas, as well as the infrastructure services of water, electricity and education.

– Enhancing the partnership with donors and international institutions to support techniques and methods that contribute to the improvement of agricultural production and crop productivity, preservation of water consumption and increasing the efficiency of its usage as well as the implementation of programs to develop water stocks of possible sources, support and encourage farmers to use modern irrigation methods and reducing waste through the means of traditional irrigation, and the development of policies and effective mechanisms to support the delivery of agriculture and fisheries. In order to upgrade the production of food crops and fish wealth development and preservation in addition to the activation of population policies and reduce fertility rates, through the implementation of projects to support poor families and encourage them to continue education particularly females and encourage families to delay the age of marriage, as well as supporting special programs to raise the level of nutrition and maternal and child health coverage, upgrading health care services in the direction of achieving the goal of the Millennium and face various diseases caused by malnutrition.

In this regard, we would like to indicate that many of the Arab countries and other countries of the developing world in Africa, Asia and Latin America have preceded us in finding solutions to problems of food security through agricultural research, field testing and laboratory procedures to ensure the significant contribution of the agricultural sector in the provision of food for the population. One of those solutions and procedures was to identify the possibility of bridging the deficit in the balance of food (food gap) by reducing the importation of some goods such as wheat–after finding out possibilities of replacing those with other alternatives in order to use them as replacements to produce the same products with the similar characteristics and advantages that is not less in quality and which may even be superior in terms of its benefits.