How Russia’s Assault on Ukraine Could Lead to Famine in Yemen
- The war in Ukraine has added to the crisis in Yemen, where a civil war has been ongoing since 2014.
- Millions of Yemenis receive food aid from the UN and 161,000 will likely experience famine in 2022.
- Russia’s attack on Ukraine has jeopardized crucial wheat supplies and caused prices to skyrocket.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine has caused millions of Ukrainians to flee, triggering a refugee crisis in eastern Europe. But the conflict is also exacerbating an ongoing humanitarian crisis a continent away.
The area around the Black Sea, which includes Ukraine and Russia, has been called the “world’s bread basket,” thanks to it’s fertile soil and high rates of grain production. Now, the war in Ukraine threatens the food security of countries that rely on that breadbasket for wheat and other grains — especially Yemen, where millions of people are already on the brink of famine amid a civil war.
“Before the Ukraine crisis erupted in February, we were warning about a year of unprecedented hunger in Yemen,” Shaza Moghraby, a spokesperson for the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), told Insider.
Since the outbreak of civil war in Yemen in 2014, its economy has been cut in half and millions of Yemenis have been pushed into food insecurity with more than 80% living below the poverty line. The situation has been worsened by global economic challenges and rising prices, including those brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
WFP provides 13 million Yemeni’s with food assistance every month, with wheat from Ukraine and Russia making up a crucial part of the country’s food supply.
Ukraine and Russia account for nearly 30% of global wheat exports
“When it comes to wheat, the Black Sea region, specifically Ukraine and Russia, matters a lot,” J. Mark Welch, a grain markets economist at Texas A&M University, told Insider.
Russia grows 10% of the world’s wheat and 17% of the world’s wheat exports, while Ukraine accounts for 12% of wheat exports. That amounts to nearly 30% of global wheat exports coming from those two countries alone.
In Yemen specifically, 22% of its wheat imports come from Ukraine alone, according to WFP.
After Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the country’s ports were shut down, effectively cutting off its wheat supply to nations that rely on it, which includes countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East. The price of wheat skyrocketed in response.
Russia’s wheat supply is also at risk of being cut off to some countries. Welch said sanctions and opposition to the war could deter purchases of Russian wheat. Or, even if a country was willing to buy Russian wheat, sanctions related to financial institutions could make it difficult to actually pay Russia and complete the transaction.
Welch explained that wheat, like many agricultural products, can’t be produced overnight. Wheat crop being sold and transported now is from last year’s harvest, and new crop won’t be harvested in the northern hemisphere until June or July. That means even if other wheat-producing countries wanted to step up and fill in the gaps, it’s very difficult to add to the supply.
There are some nations, like India, that have had a particularly good wheat harvests and, in theory, could have excess supply to fill in the gaps left by Ukraine or Russia, but with wheat at a much higher price, that still leaves some nations in a difficult spot.
“Those nations that import a large portion of the grain to feed their population, even if it comes from another source it’s at much, much higher prices, so there are likely to be some very serious consequences of that,” Welch said.
Countdown to ‘catastrophe’ in Yemen
At the start of the year, the WFP already had to halve its food rations for 8 million people in Yemen due to a lack of necessary funding. The 5 million Yemenis at immediate risk of famine have continued to receive full rations.
But if the war in Ukraine continues to choke wheat supply and drive up prices, WFP may have to cut its assistance even further, potentially leading to “catastrophe” in Yemen.
“Those who can somehow get by, barely, will soon join the ranks of those 5 million if we continue providing them with just half of the rations,” Moghraby said.
Some 161,000 people in Yemen are now expected to experience famine in 2022.
Moghraby said the WFP is in dire need of more funding to keep up with the rising prices and continue providing food assistance. A UN fundraising effort held Wednesday sought to raise $4.27 billion for humanitarian efforts in Yemen.
But only $1.3 billion was raised as the crisis in Ukraine has overshadowed the situation in Yemen, prompting the UN’s Humanitarian Chief Martin Griffiths to call the total a “disappointment,” the Associated Press reported.
“It’s not a sustainable situation,” Moghraby said, explaining that, even with the money they do have, they can’t buy as many goods due to rising prices.
She added: “Our humanitarian dollar is really being stretched to a breaking point.”
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