The Biden Administration Should Prevent an ‘Atrocity Famine’ in Yemen

After declaring an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive, there is more the president can do.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

A store is hit by airstrikes in Yemen.
A worker reacts as he stands on the wreckage of a store hit by Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, on July 2, 2020. Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

On Feb. 4, President Joe Biden announced he was ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen. The Biden administration’s decision to review U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and its subsequent move to revoke the Trump administration’s designation of Houthi forces as a foreign terrorist organization, are welcome steps in reassessing the U.S. role in the Yemen war. Humanitarian groups had broadly criticized the designation as likely to impede relief on the ground to civilians. United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock bluntly called for an immediate reversal of the policy to avert larger-scale famine, noting that 50,000 people were “essentially starving to death in what is essentially a small famine… another 5 million are just one step behind them.”

The UN has labeled Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, as over 80 percent of the population relies on humanitarian assistance to meet basic nutritional requirements.  Five rounds of negotiations between the Saudi-backed government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Houthi forces failed to end the war, which has seen over 112,000 people killed in violence since late 2014. Significant flows of humanitarian assistance helped avert larger-scale famine in early 2019 and limit deaths from the world’s largest recorded cholera epidemic.

A reset of U.S. policy on the Yemen war is necessary if the United States wants to end the suffering of the Yemeni people while repositioning itself as a diplomatic broker in Yemen’s civil conflict. U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition can be traced back to the Obama Administration’s generous arms sales to Saudi Arabia to allay concerns about the 2015 U.S.-European Union-Iran nuclear deal. The Biden administration should instead pivot toward human security concerns, not only to address the cataclysmic humanitarian crisis in Yemen but also to pressure the parties to the conflict, including U.S. allies, to reach a negotiated settlement. A renewed focus on diplomacy and the restoration of humanitarian assistance will help lower tensions throughout the Gulf and the broader Middle East in the process.

Ever-growing numbers of Yemenis are experiencing acute food insecurity. According to the U.N.’s Integrated Food Insecurity Phase Classification’s latest assessment, 13.5 million people in Yemen are facing severe food insecurity, with 16,500 already classified as starving to death in famine conditions. The situation is expected to worsen in the first six months of 2021, with 14 out of 22 governorates facing even higher levels of malnutrition and starvation.

To grasp what is unfolding in Yemen, we need to move beyond considering acute, widespread hunger and disease as the unintended collateral damage of conflict. As a foremost expert on famine, Alex de Waal, has suggested, Yemen—like Syria, Somalia, Darfur, Somalia, and northern Uganda—is a case of an “atrocity famine.” Through sieges, blockades, and attacks on civilian infrastructure, belligerents destroy livelihoods, trade, and economic activity, and they disrupt humanitarian assistance. Atrocity famines are political projects, in which parties to the conflict consider some groups dispensable and not worth saving.

A renewed focus on diplomacy and the restoration of humanitarian assistance will help lower tensions throughout the Gulf and the broader Middle East in the process. 

In our recent article on the Yemen war, we document patterns of wartime targeting of civilian infrastructure, including the destruction of water and sanitation, energy, agriculture and fishing, transportation, and health infrastructures. Such pervasive attacks contribute to the unprecedented levels of acute hunger and humanitarian need in Yemen. Attacking objects “indispensable to the survival of the civilian population” is prohibited under international humanitarian law except where required by military necessity.

Of the 1,941 incidents in our database for Yemen between 2010 and 2019, 67 percent targeted the agricultural or fishing sectors, which includes farms, markets, flour mills, food-processing companies, fishing boats, poultry farms, and livestock. The vast majority of these attacks began after 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition used airstrikes to destroy civilian targets, including hospitals, agricultural infrastructure, roads, bridges, and water systems. From 2010 to 2014, reported attacks on infrastructure were rare, conducted primarily by nonstate actors affiliated with local tribes, and focused on sabotaging oil and gas pipelines and electricity installations, often in pursuit of particular concessions from central and provincial authorities. As the war intensified with the Saudi-led bombing campaign, Houthi forces, pro-Hadi forces aligned with the internationally recognized government, and political militias throughout Yemen targeted civilian infrastructures, causing additional harm to civilian health and livelihoods. Despite deconfliction measures where humanitarians provide parties to the conflict with the coordinates of humanitarian infrastructure, especially medical facilities, there have been numerous attacks on these facilities by the Saudi-led coalition.

Attacks on civilian infrastructure are only part of the reason that the price of food has been pushed beyond reach of most Yemenis. By 2017, the Yemeni economy had contracted to around half its 2015 size, while the poverty rate increased from 49 percent in 2014 to an estimated 62-78 percent in 2016. Depreciation of the currency after mid-2018 made food even more expensive, while further dramatic losses in the value of the Yemeni riyal and escalating food prices intensified the crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Economic effects on the energy sector and provision of electricity have been particularly dire, as the country cannot afford to import the fuel it needs to keep water plants, sewage plants, and electricity services functioning. The World Bank conducted a damage assessment of energy and electricity facilities in 16 Yemeni cities in 2020 and found that while only 10 percent had suffered physical damage, over 85 percent were not functioning, due primarily to lack of fuel.

The collapsing economy and degraded civilian infrastructures have undermined capacity to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the coronavirus reached Yemen in March 2020, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres issued an urgent appeal to warring parties globally to put down their weapons to allow unfettered humanitarian access, to no avail. Despite U.N. efforts to bring about a cease-fire, the deadly attack at the Aden airport in December 2020 on another newly formed, Saudi-backed Yemeni cabinet underscored how the humanitarian crisis cannot be resolved without diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to more profoundly shift U.S. policy in Yemen. To prevent an atrocity famine, the United States must reinvest in humanitarian and development assistance, support diplomatic efforts that bring all parties to the conflict to the table, and end restrictions on trade and imports to Yemen. Short-term emergency aid, however, is insufficient to restore livelihoods, facilitate income generation, and inject much-needed reserves into the Yemeni banking system. Restoring basic services and addressing reconstruction needs must also start immediately where possible, along with intensive diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

The policy decisions laid out in Biden’s first diplomatic address are important steps toward reshaping U.S. policy in Yemen and the broader Middle East. Biden’s executive order reinstating refugee and asylum policies that once allowed the United States to claim leadership in protecting refugees and facilitating resettlement are also most needed. However, the United States must go further, prioritizing civilian welfare according to humanitarian principles as an essential pillar of foreign policy. Such a commitment would mean not only holding American forces and allies accountable to humanitarian welfare during war, but also finding ways to institutionalize restraint, including conducting pre-conflict assessments of humanitarian impacts before U.S. or allied armed interventions. These measures would significantly help the United States prevent an atrocity famine in Yemen and beyond.

Jeannie Sowers is a professor and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of New Hampshire. Her research explores political and environmental change in the Middle East and North Africa and the impacts of war on civilians and ecosystems. Her publications include Environmental Politics in Egypt: Experts, Activists, and the StateModern Egypt: What Everyone Needs to KnowThe Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt, and a number of articles and book chapters. She holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and has held postdoctoral appointments at Harvard University and Oxford University. She served on the editorial board of Middle East Report and is currently on the editorial board of Global Environmental Politics.

Erika Weinthal is a professor of environmental policy and public policy at Duke University.