Yemen is about to plummet into famine: EU must pull it back

A nationwide famine in Yemen can still be avoided. At the Senior Officials Meeting at June 1st, 2021 - a summit co-chaired by the EU and Sweden to discuss the most pressing issues faced by Yemen - world leaders have a real chance to pull the country back from the brink.

Yemen is about to plummet into famine: the EU must lead efforts to pull it back from the brink.

Nearly half of all children under the age of five in Yemen are suffering from acute malnutrition, while the majority of adults do not know where their next meal will come from.

Already in the grip of the world's largest humanitarian crisis, Yemen is now teetering on the edge of what the UN has described as "the worst famine in decades".

Yet, a nationwide famine in Yemen can still be avoided. At Tuesday's (1 June) Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) - a summit co-chaired by the EU and Sweden to discuss the most pressing issues faced by Yemen - world leaders have a real chance to pull the country back from the brink.

Like so many problems faced by ordinary Yemenis, the food security crisis is not an accident - it is entirely manmade.

People are not starving, they are being starved. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated problems already caused by Yemen's dysfunctioning economy, ongoing fuel crisis and record levels of displacement, meaning that many Yemenis simply can't afford to buy food. Meanwhile, access for humanitarian actors within the country is being constrained by all sides of the conflict. If Yemen collapses into famine, it will not have stumbled - it will have been pushed.

As international NGOs operating in Yemen, our teams witness the human impact of aid restrictions every single day. Over the past few years more people are being forced to drink unclean and unsafe water, and an increasing number of mothers face impossible decisions such as which of their children to feed each day. According to humanitarian data provider ACAPS, the number of people in need who live in "hard-to-reach areas" - regions where bureaucratic impediments, armed conflict, insecurity and logistical constraints hamper humanitarian access - almost tripled between April 2019 and August 2020.

This dire situation for ordinary Yemenis has been worsened further still by a steep decline in humanitarian funding. Yemen received just half of the $3.38bn [€2.8bn] requested via the Humanitarian Response Plan in 2020, and the UN pledging conference on Yemen last March raised less than half of the sum requested.

The resulting $2bn funding gap hits vulnerable populations hard.

The international community - and particularly the EU and its member states - should be held accountable for delivering on their existing commitments to the most vulnerable in Yemen. Tomorrow's SOM is a chance to ensure that this happens and that diplomatic engagement, at the very highest level, is brought to bear to address the drivers behind this looming crisis. Here's how:

Four EU actions

Firstly, if the international community truly wants to avoid a catastrophic famine in Yemen, it must inject some real political urgency back into negotiations over humanitarian access.

As part of these efforts, the EU and its member states should engage in face-to-face meetings with all Yemeni authorities, in coordination with the UN, to break down barriers. In particular, donors should push for swift agreements and permits that NGOs urgently require to deliver life saving aid - including food, water and medicine - to those who need them most.

Secondly, the international community needs to deliver on its own financial commitments to avert famine. As UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council last month, donors must disburse any outstanding pledges and make additional ones to prevent further deaths in Yemen. If they fail to do so, millions more Yemenis "will be staring down a death sentence before the year reaches its close".

As co-chairs of the SOM, the EU and Sweden should press international donors to scale up humanitarian funding to Yemen.

While the provision of immediate, lifesaving humanitarian aid must be the first priority, funders must also take a longer-term perspective to ensure that Yemen has a brighter future.

This will require separate contributions of development assistance to promote community resilience, reinforce social cohesion, provide basic services, and alleviate poverty while helping the population to foster sustainable livelihoods - all with a specific focus on the needs of women, girls and young people, who should play a central role in peace-building and reconstruction efforts.

Thirdly, after more than seven years of war, Yemen's infrastructure has been decimated and its already fragile economy has shrunk by over 50 percent. The previous SOM resulted in a commitment to deliver an "economic rescue package for Yemen", including foreign exchange injections to help stabilise the economy and the Yemeni Rial and prevent food prices from escalating even further.

Urgent engagement from the international community - including the EU - with Gulf donors and international financial institutions is now needed to turn this plan into a reality.

Finally, while the last two SOMs resulted in some measurable improvements to humanitarian access over the course of 2020, this momentum has been lost. A proper, monitor-able action plan must be created in order to assess progress and hold parties accountable for their commitments.

At the G7 earlier this month, members committed more than €5.8bn in humanitarian aid to countries that are one step away from catastrophe or famine, and pledged to join forces to promote and protect international humanitarian law, including access for humanitarians globally. The Yemen SOM will be their first real test.

As co-host of the SOM, the EU has a golden opportunity to rally the international community behind a common agenda and stop Yemen from plummeting into famine, before it's too late. Given the UN's dire warnings, the stakes couldn't be higher. Yemen cannot wait.


Imogen Sudbery is director policy and advocacy for Europe at the International Rescue Committee. Birte Hald is Brussels representative of the Danish Refugee Council. Evelien van Roemburg is head of EU office for Oxfam. Céline Mias is EU representative for CARE International. Jonathan Cunliffe is regional operations director for Middle East at Action Against Hunger. Edouard Rodier is director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Europe. Anita Bay is director of Save the Children Europe.