Yemen’s alarming crisis: ‘The worst famine in the world in 100 years’

Photo credit © Villages from the air, Yemen. Photo: Gerry & Bonni

Today is World Food Day 2018. Toni Pyke explores the rising food security crisis in Yemen, which is taking its toll following three years of civil war, which the UN warned is on course to become ‘the worst famine in the world in 100 years’. This feature is part of the #ZeroHunger series, brought to you by the Professional Development Support Service for Teachers (PDST),, Concern Worldwide and Self Help Africa.

The Global Hunger Index informs us that hunger and mal/undernutrition continues to plague our planet.

Last month, the World Food Programme (WFP) focused on one such scenario, cautioning that Yemen was on the “brink of a full-blown famine”, where some 18 million of the country’s 29 million people would be ‘food insecure’ and some 8.4 million ‘severely’ so.

Yesterday, the UN warned that Yemen is on course to become the ‘worst famine in the world in 100 years’. For the last 3 years, Yemen’s civil war has devastated the country with an estimated 10,000 people killed and now 13 million people facing starvation.

6 key facts about the civil war in Yemen

  1. 3 years ago Houthi rebels reportedly backed by neighbouring Iran, have occupied much of the Yemen. In response, a coalition of Arab states (which includes: Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal) launched a military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, both on the ground and through air strikes. Saudi Arabia, backed by the US, UK and France use air strikes and a blockade (sealing off the country to prevent goods or people from entering or leaving) in support of Yemen’s internationally recognised government.
  2. Direct casualties – whilst accurate information if difficult to obtain, some 10,000 Yemenis had been killed by the fighting. According to Save The Children an estimated 130 children in Yemen die every day from extreme hunger and disease.
  3. Displacement – more than 3 million Yemenis have fled their homes to other areas in the country and 280,000 have sought asylum in other countries.
  4. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), report that 22.2 million people in Yemen are in need of humanitarian/protective support; 17.8 million are food insecure, where 8.4 million are ‘severely food insecure and at risk of starvation’; 16 million lack access to safe water and sanitation; 16.4million lack access to adequate healthcare.
  5. One of the impacts of blockades means that humanitarian support is restricted. Food, medicines and other essentials are difficult to reach where there is most need. Added to this are the dangers and difficulties for aid workers such as medical professionals and humanitarian workers to access and/or work in the country. For example, in January 2016 a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders was hit by a rocket which killed four people. In October 2015 an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition injured some 6 people at a hospital also run by Doctors Without Borders.
  6. Yemen’s depreciating currency (the riyal) and collapsing economy have also contributed to pushing communities towards starvation. Food prices have increased by an average of 68 percent since 2015, and the riyal has depreciated nearly 180 percent (Save the Children).

According to the latest Global Hunger Index (GHI), Yemen ranks 117 out of 119 countries, with a score of 39.9 (where zero is the best score. Central African Republic ranks the worst in the world with a score of 53.7).

In an interview with the BBC, the UN Resident Coordinator to Yemen, Lise Grande spoke about the potential famine situation in Yemen, reporting that:

“I think many of us felt as we went into the 21st century that it was unthinkable that we could see a famine like saw in Ethiopia, Bengal and that we saw in parts of the Soviet Union, that was just unacceptable…. Yet in Yemen, this is precisely what we are looking at…”

Understanding ‘hunger’ terminology

In its latest report, the GHI states that “the problem of hunger is complex, and different terms are used to describe its various forms”. Consistent with the GHI report below is a basic definition of the terms ‘hunger’, ‘undernutrition’ and ‘malnutrition’.

  • Hunger – usually refers to the distress associated with a lack of sufficient calories. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines food deprivation, or undernourishment, as the consumption of too few calories to provide the minimum amount of dietary energy that each individual requires to live a healthy and productive life, given that person’s sex, age, stature, and physical activity level.
  • Undernutrition – goes beyond calorific intake and considers deficiencies in energy, protein, essential vitamins/minerals and any combination of these. The result is an inadequate intake of food in terms of either quantity or quality, poor utilisation of nutrients due to infections or other illnesses, or a combination of these factors. These, in turn, are caused by a range of factors, including household food insecurity; inadequate maternal health or childcare practices; or inadequate access to health services, safe water, and sanitation.
  • Malnutrition – refers more broadly to both undernutrition (problems caused by deficiencies) and overnutrition (problems caused by unbalanced diets, such as consuming too many calories in relation to requirements with or without low intake of micronutrient-rich foods).

To put this into context, the FAO defines ‘hunger’ as:

“usually understood as an uncomfortable or painful sensation caused by insufficient food energy consumption. Scientifically, hunger is referred to as food deprivation. Simply put, all hungry people are food insecure, but not all food insecure people are hungry, as there are other causes of food insecurity, including those due to poor intake of micro-nutrients”.

The famine in Yemen is complex and what many call a ‘man-made’ disaster – a disaster with no immediate end in sight.

On World Food Day, consider the prevalence of hunger and famine in our societies and cast your mind back to Ireland’s own famine journey. There are many ways in which we can take action on the issues that surround famine and hunger. For example:

  • Learn more about the famine and conflict in Yemen and consider writing a debate around the issues.
  • Share your debate on-line at
  • Write in support of the work that local NGOs are contributing in supporting the people of Yemen.
  • Share your knowledge widely within your school community.
  • Whatever you do, be sure to check out the facts. Check out several reputable sources to cross-check information. Such as UN agencies, the BBC, the Guardian, Al Jazeera, etc.

Note: Featured photo: Villages from the air, Yemen. Photo: Gerry & Bonni (CC-BY-2.0) via Flickr, November 2011.