Middle East
12:08 am
Tue June 26, 2012

As 'Hungry Season' Nears, Yemenis Struggle For Food

Originally published on Fri July 6, 2012 9:32 am

Yemen has long struggled as one of the least developed countries in the world. But now, after a year of protest and unrest that saw the country's longtime dictator step down, the situation for millions of Yemenis is dire.

Aid groups say some 10 million people are now without enough food to eat, and more than 200,000 children face life-threatening levels of malnutrition.

Private aid groups working with those in need of food say there are basically three categories in Yemen: those who have no money and no access to markets; those who have money but no access to markets; and those living in places like Hays, a thriving market town off the Red Sea in Yemen's hot, western plains.

Meat and vegetables are sold in Hays' main souk, a commerce center that serves a lot of the surrounding villages. But the people living at the margins simply do not have the money to buy food.

Many Children, Few Breadwinners

Just outside Hays and off the main road is the tiny fishing village of Bani Al-Robat, where women in brightly colored prints greet us with kisses. One pulls me toward a young mother, whose husband has drowned in the sea.

She is holding a very tiny baby, whose legs are about as big around as a carrot. This tiny person, the smallest baby I've ever seen, is 2 years old. The women say the child is very sick. It's likely the child has severe, acute malnutrition, which means he could die if not treated soon.

There are no men in the village because they're all at sea, fishing, the women say. "If they find fish, they bring it. If they don't, we don't have food," one woman explains.

The women say they sometimes go for weeks on just bread, tea and a watery salsa called sahouwak, made of tomatoes and spices. The result is not just the at-risk 2-year-old but dozens of too-thin, stunted children. In all, we counted more than 30 children who belong to just five households.

Aid workers say Bani Al-Robat has always been poor but managed to survive. Now a perfect storm of factors has dragged the village into a crisis. First, the rain stopped coming a few years ago. Then, pirates started robbing the fishermen of their catch, and political unrest last year caused a massive fuel crisis.

That meant nearby farmers stopped farming, and the little work these women could get came to a halt. It also meant the cost of transportation to the nearby market was simply too high. Now the women and children have no idea where the next meal will come from.

Running Out Of Time

The British charity Oxfam is distributing cash to communities like Bani Al-Robat so they can go to the market and buy food. But this particular village was not registered on the government list that charity groups use, so these people have fallen through the cracks.

Back in Yemen's capital Sanaa, Oxfam's country director Colette Fearon concedes the government list isn't perfect.

"But we can't wait," Fearon says. "People at the moment are hungry. And you can't wait until you've got perfect systems and perfect lists before you can actually address the needs that you can meet." Oxfam has set aside money for some people who didn't make the list, Fearon adds.

Aid groups acknowledge that cash payments are only a short-term solution for people who live near markets. Others, who have no money and no market, simply need food fast.

At a recent meeting of the so-called Friends of Yemen in nearby Saudi Arabia, $4 billion in aid was pledged. But a subsequent donor conference has been postponed.

Aid groups say they've received about half of the money they need to address the most dire cases. But with Yemen's so-called hungry season of hot, dry months approaching, Fearon says, people are simply running out of time.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Yemen has long struggled as one of the least developed countries in the world. But now, after a year of protest and unrest that saw the country's long-time dictator step down, the situation for Yemenis is even more dire. Aid groups say some 10 million people are now without enough food. More than 200,000 children face life-threatening malnutrition. NPR's Kelly McEvers sent this report from Yemen's hot western plains off the Red Sea.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: We're standing here in the main souk in the village of Hays. This is kind of your main commerce center that serves a lot of the surrounding villages. NGOs that work with people going hungry here in Yemen say that there are basically three types of people. You have people who have no money and no access to markets. And then you have people who have money but no access to markets. And then you have the third category of people, and that's the people living here. These are people who have access to markets. I mean, this is a thriving market town, you can hear the activity. There's vegetables being sold, there's meat being sold. But the people at the very margins simply do not have the money to buy it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

MCEVERS: Just outside the market town and off the main road is the tiny fishing village of Dhami Robat.

(SOUNDBITE OF KISSING, WOMEN TALKING)

MCEVERS: Women in brightly colored prints greet us with kisses.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: One pulls me toward a young mother holding a baby.

His leg is about...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: ...as big around as a carrot. Very tiny, tiny baby.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Her husband drowned in the sea.

MCEVERS: The women say the child is very sick. We're shocked to hear that this tiny person - the smallest baby I've ever seen - is two years old. It's likely the child has severe acute malnutrition, which means he could die if not treated soon.

We ask the women why there are no men in the village. They tell us they're all at sea, fishing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If they find fish, they bring it. If they don't, we don't have food.

MCEVERS: So they try to get by on bread and tea and sometimes a watery salsa called sahouwak, made of tomatoes and spices. The women say they sometimes go for weeks like this. The result is not just the at-risk two-year-old, but dozens of too-thin, stunted children.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine...

In all there are more than 30 children for just five households. The aid workers we're with say this village has always been poor but managed to survive. Now a perfect storm of factors has dragged the village into crisis.

First, the rain stopped coming a few years ago. Then, pirates started robbing the fishermen of their catch. Then, political unrest last year caused a massive fuel crisis. That meant nearby farmers stopped farming, and the little work these women could get came to a halt. It also meant the cost of transportation to the nearby market was simply too high. Now, the women and children have no idea where the next round of food will come from.

This is the bag of flour that's basically what everybody survives on, really. How much longer will this bag last?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Five or six days.

MCEVERS: The British charity Oxfam is distributing cash to communities like these so they can go to the market and buy food. But this particular village wasn't registered on the government list that charity groups use. So these people have fallen through the cracks.

Back in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, we meet Oxfam's country director Collette Fearon. She concedes the government list isn't perfect.

COLLETTE FEARON: But we can't wait. People at the moment are hungry. And you can't wait until you've got perfect systems and perfect lists before you can actually address the needs that you can meet.

MCEVERS: Fearon says Oxfam has set aside money for some people who didn't make the list.

Aid groups acknowledge that cash payments are only a short-term solution for people who live near markets. Others, who have no money and no market, simply need food - and fast.

A recent meeting of the so-called Friends of Yemen in nearby Saudi Arabia pledge $4 billion in aid. But a subsequent donor conference has been postponed.

Aid groups say they've received about half of the money they need to address the most dire cases. But with Yemen's so-called hungry season of hot, dry months approaching, Fearon says people are simply running out of time.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Sanaa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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