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04.02.2019 | Guest Commentary

Yemen: Report from a Country in Ruins

In the already poverty-stricken Yemen, the civil war has hit the people hard. The United Nations expects that 80 percent of the population will rely on humanitarian assistance this year. Julian Zakrzewski, Country Director of Welthungerhilfe's partner organisation ACTED, reports from a country in ruins, and explains how his organisation works with Welthungerhilfe to help people there.

A young man sits next to a heap of rubble.
A member of the Houthi group sitting on the rubble of houses that were destroyed overnight by a Saudi-led air attack in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. © Reuters
Julian Zakrzewski ACTED

Julian, what is life like for people in Yemen now? Which type of support do they most urgently need?

One of the worst humanitarian disasters of our time is currently taking place in Yemen. The armed conflict has badly affected a country that was already poor to begin with. Despite enormous efforts by aid organisations, the humanitarian situation has further deteriorated for various reasons, including an economic slump that decimated the value of the currency, the collapse of state institutions, and the blockade of ports and access routes. New studies by the United Nations assume that more than 24 million people require humanitarian assistance this year. This represents 80 percent of the population, an increase of 10 percent compared to last year. Furthermore, over 15 million people face the threat of hunger.

Many people do not know where they will get food for the next day, so they eat just one meal a day, or only eat every few days. However, in many places in Yemen there is enough food on sale. The problem is rather that for many reasons, people can no longer afford to buy it. State officials have not been paid for years, or their wages have been drastically cut.

Julian Zakrzewski, ACTED Länderdirektor Jemen

Civilians need the support of the international community to survive. We must not abandon them.

Julian Zakrzewski ACTED Country Director in Yemen

Millions of people in Yemen have been relying on food distribution for years as their only energy source. However, the rations are not designed for this purpose, and people living off these food handouts alone have used up their fat reserves after the second year at the latest, and their physical condition deteriorates due to the lack of nutrients in the food. This is why we provide people with cash, to help enable them to meet other important basic needs.

As well as hunger, in many places there is a lack of clean drinking water. The years of war have destroyed vital infrastructure. In late 2017 this led to the largest outbreak of cholera ever recorded. Although the number of new infections is dropping, the risk of catching cholera is still high. This particularly applies in remote areas, where the supply of clean drinking water can no longer be guaranteed, due to bombing or failure to maintain wells and pipelines.

How can people in Yemen currently get food and water?

Many people in Yemen could not survive without humanitarian assistance. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) distributes food rations to nearly ten million people every month. The terrible thing about this situation is that in other crisis areas around the world, people often have their own reserves in addition to the WFP rations.

ACTED and Welthungerhilfe also provide financial support for people in Yemen. Why do people get cash rather than food or other basic items? 

First money, then materials. This is a trend in emergency assistance.

As I mentioned, in many areas of Yemen, supply is not the greatest problem. The issue is rather that people have no money to meet their most basic needs. That is why ACTED and Welthungerhilfe distribute money. The money allows people to set their own priorities, and also strengthens the local economy by increasing people’s purchasing power. Distributing cash benefits the Yemenis, and it also has advantages for us.

We can save the high transport costs in remote areas, and distributing cash is quicker than distributing bulky emergency assistance packages. To be clear, as an aid organisation we do not actually distribute money in cash. For safety reasons we work with local banks in the villages.

How do you ensure that the assistance actually reaches the people who need it?

In Yemen there are not many people who do not need any assistance. Nonetheless we concentrate on the poorest of the poor. We have clear selection criteria, such as families with undernourished children, pregnant women, households led by women or children, and families with chronically ill members. These people are in particular need.

ACTED staff visit communities daily, to present our projects and to explain the selection criteria. All our projects are accompanied and monitored by teams of independent experts to ensure that the assistance really reaches the people who need it most.

Menschen stehen bei einer Bargeldverteilung Schlange.
People queue for cash distribution. © ACTED

There will be a conference of international donors to Yemen in February. What do you expect to see there?

The upcoming donor conference will allow us to put the global spotlight back on Yemen. Governments will hopefully be persuaded that their engagement in Yemen is more necessary than ever before. As I mentioned, the number of people threatened by famine will rise to 15 million. Yemen needs international attention to bring the warring parties back to the negotiating table, and civilians need the support of the international community to survive. We must not abandon them.

What work is there to be done in a country that is currently shaped by war and hunger?

Yemen is a beautiful country with wonderful, proud people. It is sad to see how the war has changed the country and spread division among groups that were living together peacefully until recently. The absurd aspect of the situation is that the supermarkets in Sanaa, for example, are full, and you would never know there was any scarcity. At the same time, the streets are full of people who have to beg to survive.

Ein glücklicher Mann bei der Nahrungsmittelverteilung im Jemen.
Food distribution in Yemen. © ACTED

If you travel to the north of the country, the effects of the war are particularly palpable. Every bridge on the road from Sanaa to Sadaa has been destroyed, which means transport routes are long. During my last visit to our office in Sadaa, we were woken up by several air attacks very close by. Unfortunately this situation is an everyday occurrence for people in the area.

Is there any experience or encounter that particularly sticks in your memory?

Just landing at the airport in Sanaa, which only allows United Nations planes to land, makes it clear that Yemen is a country marked by war. The landing strip is scattered with destroyed passenger aircraft, fighters and combat helicopters. The departure hall is marked by air strikes, and the airport is deserted apart from staff from international aid organisations and the United Nations. The destroyed aircraft are a warning to people arriving, and for those who are leaving they are a reminder not to forget Yemen.

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