One-third of Yemenis going hungry - report

Water scarcity, rapid population growth and internal conflicts are some of the main factors causing an “alarming state of food insecurity” at national and local levels, a new report has warned.



Rural areas are particularly affected with five times as many food-insecure people as in urban areas, it said.



"If no action is taken, food security is projected to remain at extremely low levels through 2020 and Yemen will remain highly vulnerable to external shocks and disasters," the report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) said.



A study by the World Food Programme* revealed that at the household level, 32.1 percent (7.5 million) of the country's 23 million people do not have enough food to satisfy their needs - putting Yemen among the 10 most food-insecure countries in the world.



According to the government's Central Statistical Organization, Yemen has been experiencing a steady decline in grain production since 2007 as a result of internal conflicts, dwindling water resources and the increased cultivation of `qat’, a mildly narcotic, water-thirsty plant chewed by many Yemenis.



Shoura Council member Yahya al-Habbari said 70 percent of Yemen's arable land is used for growing ‘qat’, while the country “annually imports 2.5 million tons of wheat”.



He also blamed rural-urban migration for worsening food security. "Farmers use water scarcity or reduced rainfall as an excuse to quit farming and migrate to cities in search of other work opportunities," he said. "This increases Yemen's dependence on imported grains."















Photo: Adel Yahya/IRIN
A farmer in Ans District hopes for better rainfall this season to grow wheat

Rural-urban divide




Food insecurity and child malnutrition in rural areas are much worse than in cities, where less than 29 percent of the population live.



According to the report, 37.3 percent of the rural population is food insecure compared to 17.7 percent of the urban population. In addition, 62.1 percent of rural children were stunted compared to 45.4 percent of urban children.



The report attributes two main reasons for this significant difference. Water scarcity, compounded by limited rainfall over the past few years, has greatly affected farming and livestock rearing, the main livelihoods for most rural people.



Yemen is one of the driest countries in the world, with a per capita water consumption of about 125 cubic metres a year, against a global average of 7,500 cubic metres, according to the UN Development Programme’s 2009 Arab Human Development Report.



While incomes have been falling in rural areas, the population has been rapidly growing. “Total fertility is higher in rural areas, where women on average have more than two more children than their urban counterparts; the average rural Yemeni woman will bear almost seven children (6.7), whereas the total fertility rate in urban areas is 4.5,” the report said.



It attributed higher rural fertility rates to limited access to education. Almost 70 percent of those aged 18 and over did not attend school or failed to complete primary school, compared to only 45 percent in urban areas.



For Ahmad Mohammed al-Shaghdari, a 44-year-old farmer from Ans District in Dhamar Governorate, some 100km south of the capital, recent rainfall came too late to save his potato farm.



"We have neither food nor money at home, which is why I resorted to work as a day labourer in Sanaa to provide for my six children. My first week in Sanaa ended with only 1,500 riyals [US$7] spare in my pocket. I still need another 1,500 to send my children half a sack [25kg] of wheat," he told IRIN.



He said bread and tea had become standard meals for his family and for many others in his area.



According to Ali al-Khawlani, manager of a health centre in Ans District, it is this diet that is responsible for the high rate of malnourished children in villages. "Poor families can give their children alternatives to tea at a lower cost but higher nutritional value, such as fruits and vegetables," he said. "Water is much healthier and cheaper than tea, but the lack of awareness remains a problem."



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* Corrected on 20 June to attribute this study to the World Food Programme