The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

U.N. Warns Yemen Could Be on Brink of Famine

The crisis comes as the United States weighs sharp cuts to U.N. humanitarian aid programs

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
yemen crop

Over 17 million people are under threat of famine in war-torn Yemen, making it one of the world’s worst hunger crises, a United Nations body and its humanitarian partners warned on Wednesday.

Officials pin the blame solely on the country’s conflict, which began in 2014. “The conflict has a devastating impact on agricultural livelihoods. Crop and livestock production fell significantly compared to pre-crisis levels,” said Salah Hajj Hassan, a representative for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Yemen. “It is absolutely essential that the humanitarian response encompass food and agriculture assistance to save not only lives but also livelihoods.”

But the Yemenis might not get the help they so desperately need. The U.S. government is considering gutting U.S. funding for U.N. humanitarian programs by up to 50 percent and slashing the U.S. Agency for International Development budget by up to 37 percent.

Even without the United States pulling the rug out from under international development, the global humanitarian system is already stretched to the brink with upticks in starvation, disease, and conflict. Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan also face famine without further international assistance.

“We stand at a critical point in history. Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the U.N.,” U.N. humanitarian envoy Stephen O’Brien warned in a speech to the U.N. Security Council on March 10.

As international organizations and humanitarian groups scrape by with what they have, the most vulnerable in Yemen risk being left behind. There are 2.2 million children in Yemen at risk of acute malnutrition and 462,000 severely and acutely malnourished (SAM), according to the U.N. International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). “To put things in perspective, a SAM child is ten times more at risk of death if not treated on time than a healthy child his or her age,” said UNICEF representative Meritxell Relaño. “We are seeing the highest levels of acute malnutrition in Yemen’s recent history,” he said.

The U.N. and its humanitarian partners released a technical report on March 1 outlining Yemen’s deteriorating food shortage crisis in detail.

Yemen has been mired in conflict since 2014, when Houthi rebels rose up against the government and took large swaths of western Yemen, including the country’s capital, Sanaa. The conflict left over 80 percent of the country reliant on international assistance.

Saudi Arabia launched an Arab-led air campaign against the Houthi rebels in March 2015 that is criticized for indiscriminately targeting civilians. Over 10,000 people have been killed and 2.8 million displaced since the conflict began. U.S. President Donald Trump ramped up U.S. military force in Yemen, including air strikes and commando raids, since taking office in January.

Photo credit: SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer