One year on: looming banking crisis in Yemen risks pushing millions into famine

A year of devastating conflict in Yemen compounded by a looming banking crisis risks pushing millions into famine, warns Oxfam today one year on from the escalation of war.

Airstrikes, fighting and indiscriminate shelling have killed more than 6,100 people, forced 2.4 million people from their homes, and left 21.2 million – 82 percent of the population – in dire need of humanitarian aid. 

The destruction of farms and markets, a de facto blockade on commercial imports and a long-running fuel crisis have caused a drop in agricultural production, a scarcity of supplies and exorbitant food prices. Airstrikes have also hit main supply routes, warehouses holding food aid and vehicles carrying humanitarian supplies, exacerbating the food crisis.

With the conflict continuing into a second year, international banks are more and more reluctant to provide credit to importers, meaning traders may have to halt shipments. At the same time the Central Bank of Yemen is struggling to stabilise prices in the food market. For a country that imports 90 percent of its food, this could result in price hikes hitting a quarter of the population, already on the edge of starvation.

An Oxfam food survey of 250 people in north-west Yemen in February found that almost two thirds of families rely on credit to buy food. But as so few people are able to pay back their debt, lenders are increasingly unwilling to provide loans to poor families. All the evidence shows that the poorest people do not have the ability to withstand this crisis for much longer – all those Oxfam surveyed said they spend more per month than they are able to earn.

Sajjad Mohamed Sajid, Oxfam’s Country Director in Yemen, said: “A brutal conflict on top of an existing crisis, a catastrophe on top of catastrophe, has created one of the biggest humanitarian emergencies in the world today – yet most people are unaware of it. Men, women and children are caught between reckless bombing from the sky and indiscriminate shelling on the ground, with nowhere to hide.

“Close to 14.4 million people, more than half of all Yemenis, are hungry and the majority will not be able to withstand the rising prices for food if importers are unable to trade due to a crippled financial system.”
    
Even before the current crisis, Yemenis were already facing enormous levels of humanitarian need. In June 2015, 10 out of the 22 governorates in Yemen were classified as ‘one step away’ from famine and in need of immediate life-saving assistance. 

Eight months on and the situation has only disintegrated further. A UN survey of businesses in August and September last year found that 64 percent of businesses had no stocks in their storerooms and those with an inventory had less than two months’ worth left.

People in Taiz city, in the front line of the conflict, told Oxfam in February that there were no vegetables or infant formula milk available in the market, and reported that in some areas food prices have increased by 200 percent. Many said that they eat only one meal per day to leave enough food for their children. Some said they went without food for 36 hours during times of intense conflict. 

In February, the Central Bank of Yemen stopped guaranteeing favourable exchange rates for imports of sugar – and the latest indications are that rice and wheat may soon follow. 
Uncertainty in the financial sector is making importers nervous and is likely to reduce the flow of goods into the country, pushing prices up even further. 

In order to stave off the collapse of Yemen’s economy, Oxfam is urging the international community to provide urgent support to the Central Bank of Yemen, as well as Yemen’s private banks and importers.  

Oxfam is calling for all land, sea and air routes to Yemen to remain open to allow the regular and consistent flow of commercial supplies of food, fuel and medicines in to the country to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

“Without peace, Yemen risks sliding in to famine but some world leaders seems more intent on fuelling the conflict than stopping it. In 2015 governments reported total arms sales of $25 billion, including drones, bombs, torpedoes, rockets and missiles, to belligerents in the conflict. Governments – particularly the US and UK, the main supporters of coalition forces – must act as peace brokers, not arms brokers.”

Notes to editors

1.    Oxfam’s media brief Yemen’s invisible food crisis is available here

2.    Photos and stories from Yemen are also available. 

3.    Oxfam has reached more than 730,000 people with clean water, food vouchers, hygiene kits and other essential aid in the north and south of Yemen since March 2015.

4.    For more information on the food security situation in Yemen, go to the Indicative IPC Acute Food Insecurity Situation Overview - June 2015

5.    The UNDP rapid business survey can be found here.

Contact information

Christina Corbett | CCorbett@oxfam.org.uk | +44 (0) 7557 48 37 58 

For updates, please follow @Oxfam