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Food access temporarily improves during Ramadan and lean season ends in highlands

  • Food Security Outlook Update
  • Yemen
  • April 2021
Food access temporarily improves during Ramadan and lean season ends in highlands

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  • Key Messages
  • Key Messages
    • Active conflict ongoing for more than six years continues to drive high levels of acute food insecurity in Yemen through both direct and indirect mechanisms. Macroeconomic conditions continue to deteriorate, with access to food and income significantly below pre-conflict levels. Even in the presence of large-scale humanitarian assistance, widespread Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and Crisis! (IPC Phase 3!) outcomes are expected to persist, with worst-affected households facing Emergency (IPC Phase 4) or Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5) outcomes. While not the most likely scenario, Famine (IPC Phase 5) is possible should food supply be cut off for a prolonged period of time.

    • Currently, many poor households are experiencing slight improvements in food access and reduced consumption gaps due to Ramadan, which lasts from mid-April to mid-May. During this time, many households receive increased Zakat (gifts) and remittances. Most common types of gifts include nutrient-dense foods, clothes, and money. While this is expected to temporarily improve food security for some poor households, those in areas worst affected by further rapid food price increases—especially in the south where the currency has continued to depreciate—are unlikely to see improvements during Ramadan.

    • In the north, fuel imports through the Red Sea ports in late March and early April are contributing to slight relief in fuel availability relative to the worst periods of shortages since June 2020. In southern areas, fuel shortages due to insufficient government revenue are still compromising the provision of public services including electricity and water, as support from the Saudi fuel grant has not been received as of late April.

    • Currently, the beginning of the main summer agricultural season in highland areas is expected to be ending the lean season as availability of labor opportunities increases. Despite expectations for below-average rainfall during the first rainy season from March to May, increased availability of labor opportunities and wages is expected to improve access to income, especially for agricultural laborers. The rainy season has started two to three weeks late across much of the country.

    • High levels of conflict in much of the west continue to directly impact civilians by displacing households, damaging homes and infrastructure, destroying crops and livestock, disrupting livelihoods and income-earning, and causing civilian casualties and trauma. In Marib, high levels of conflict have continued as the Houthis continue their efforts to progress eastward toward Marib City. Should conflict block humanitarian access or delay assistance deliveries, an increase in the number of households facing Emergency (IPC Phase 4) or Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5) outcomes—in line with wide consumption gaps and increased risk of malnutrition and mortality—would be likely in affected areas.


    Conflict remains the main driver of acute food insecurity throughout Yemen, with civilians near active conflict zones (Figure 1) worst affected by direct impacts. As of late April, there has been no progress toward the Saudi-proposed ceasefire and the situation along the front lines remains fragile.

    According to data from IOM, over 10,000 individuals have been displaced due to conflict from the beginning of March to April 10, 2021, across the 13 of 24 governorates monitored. During this time period, the highest number of displacements occurred in Taizz (over 5,000 individuals) and Marib (over 4,400 individuals). While territory did not meaningfully change hands in Marib in March and most of April, intense conflict resulted in at least 40 civilian casualties in March, the highest monthly total since 2018 according to UNHCR. In late April, intense fighting in Marib has continued alongside reports of the Houthis making territorial gains toward Marib City, though the Saudi-backed Yemeni government (GoY) has denied these reports. In Taizz, Marib, and other conflict-affected areas, conflict has caused civilian casualties, destroyed homes, damaged civilian infrastructure, killed livestock, and caused movement restrictions.

    The GoY continues to face severe liquidity constraints and worsening currency shortages due in large part to the impacts of protracted conflict on the economy. Across southern GoY-controlled areas, the Yemeni Riyal (YER) depreciated by around 3 percent on average from February to March 2021 according to data from FAO/FSTS. In northern Houthi-controlled areas, the pattern of relative stability in the currency has continued.

    According to UNVIM reporting, only 38,000 tons of fuel were imported through the Red Sea ports (Al Hudaydah and Al Salif) in March. This total was 78 percent lower than the monthly average since May 2016. Most of this fuel was discharged in the last week of March, following the clearance of four fuel tankers in late March, and provided the first officially imported fuel through Houthi-controlled ports since early January 2021. According to UNVIM weekly reports, a further 60,000-70,000 tons of fuel have been discharged in April as of April 20. Meanwhile, fuel imports through the southern Aden port have remained relatively stable overall, though with typical month-to-month volatility observed. However, in southern GoY-controlled areas, fuel shortages due to insufficient government revenue have compromised public service provision including electricity and clean water, with long periods of electricity outages reported. Despite the late March announcement of Saudi fuel support for the south equivalent to 420 million USD, no support has been received as of late April.

    Fuel prices—which were already significantly above pre-conflict levels—have increased further in recent months due to ongoing fuel shortages in both northern and southern areas. According to data from FAO Market Information Dashboard, official diesel and petrol prices increased by 28 and 30 percent, respectively, at the national level from February to March 2021. These price increases were almost entirely driven by official price increases in southern governorates. The Yemen Petroleum Company (YPC) in Aden has now raised the official prices of fuel three times within the past three months, resulting in official fuel price increases of over 40 percent in areas under GoY control since the beginning of the year. As of March, official diesel and petrol prices in GoY-controlled areas were 42 and 53 percent higher, respectively, than the previous year. Meanwhile, in northern areas where fuel at official prices is usually unavailable, unofficial prices are significantly higher than official prices. As of March, unofficial diesel and petrol prices in northern areas were 57 and 77 percent higher, respectively, than the same time last year. High prices of available fuel across the country are increasing transport costs, contributing to further food price increases, and are further stressing many households' livelihoods. For example, the number of small daily fruit traders has reduced in some areas due to fuel shortages, high fuel prices, and consequent disruption to supply chains alongside weak purchasing power and lower demand for fruit at the higher price points.

    Yemen is highly dependent on imports for its national food supply. According to the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), a total 1,704,592 tons of food were imported through all of Yemen’s main seaports (Al Hudaydah, As Salif, Aden, Socotra, and Al Mukalla) and land ports (Shahin and Wadiea’ah) from January to March 2021, of which 68 percent was wheat grain and 7 percent was wheat flour (Figure 2). Total food import levels during this period were 33 percent higher than the same period of 2020. From January to March 2021, around 59 percent of total food and around 67 percent of total wheat grain and flour entered through the Red Sea Ports. Meanwhile, according to UNVIM reporting, food import levels through the Red Sea Ports in March 2021 were 45 percent higher than March 2020 and 41 percent higher than the monthly average since May 2016.

    The MTI estimates that Yemen’s total wheat grain and flour import requirement (including for consumption, livestock feed, and stocks) for 2021 is around 4.6 million tons, of which 33 percent was imported during the first quarter of 2021. While food import levels—including wheat grain and flour—have been stable in the first quarter of 2021, deteriorating macroeconomic conditions and worsening currency shortages remain of concern for continued import finance support and the stability of the food supply beyond late 2021. According to MTI information, stocks of wheat in Al Hudaydah and As Salif silos totaled around 6,480,120 sacks as of late March/early April 2021, which is assessed to be enough to cover consumption requirements in northern Houthi-controlled areas for approximately three months.

    For most poor households in Yemen, markets (using cash or credit) provide the primary source of food, followed by humanitarian food assistance and household agricultural production. Reliance on community support is also common, though it is difficult to estimate the contribution to households’ total food. Across monitored markets, availability of imported food commodities—such as cereals and oil—has remained stable in March and April 2021 according to key informants, though with some shortages reported in frontline conflict areas. On the other hand, availability of locally produced commodities—such as vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs, and fish—followed seasonal trends, with some governorates experiencing various scarcities as is normal during this time of year. For instance, according to key informants, most of Yemen experienced shortages and/or high prices of locally produced fruits during the first week of Ramadan in mid-April, mainly due to high demand and high transportation costs.

    According to data from FAO/FSTS, prices of imported foods—which were already significantly above-average—have further increased in March with the approach of Ramadan, when demand for both imported and locally produced commodities typically increases. From February to March, the national average prices of staple wheat grain and flour increased by 5 percent and 9 percent respectively, with the highest prices recorded in Lahj, Shabwah, Al Maharah, Marib, and Socotra. National average prices of wheat grain and flour in March 2021 were 28 and 39 percent higher, respectively, than the same period of last year (Figure 3). Similarly, the national average cost of the minimum food basket[1] in March 2021 was 26 percent higher than in March 2020, with the highest costs recorded in Shabwah, Lahj, Aden, Al Maharah, Socotra, and Marib.

    With some exceptions at the governorate level, wages have generally been increasing over the past year and a half or more due to inflation. From February to March 2021, wages for agricultural laborers, casual (unskilled) laborers, and semi-skilled laborers increased by 4 percent, 4 percent, and 2 percent, respectively, at the national level, although trends were mixed across governorates. However, wage increases have generally been insufficient to keep up with price increases in many areas, and household purchasing power as measured by the terms of trade (a ratio) between labor wages and wheat flour prices decreased by 5-7 percent from February to March 2021 due to the wheat flour price increases in March. Terms of trade in March 2021 remain worse than last year in most governorates (Figure 4). Worst affected by low purchasing power are agricultural wage laborers, who only earn enough to cover the full cost of the MFB after working for ten days, on average, based on March 2021 wage rates and prices at the national level. Low availability of labor opportunities continues to further constrain income-earning for many households. However, during Ramadan, access to both food and non-food items slightly improves—in turn improving food consumption—due to Zakat, which are very common during this month. Most common types of gifts include nutrient-dense foods, clothes, and money.

    In Yemen, the seasonality of agricultural production activities (land preparation, planting, and harvesting) varies across ecological zones. In the coastal areas (Red Sea and Arabian Sea), harvesting of sorghum, millet, and maize in late 2020 and early 2021 is supporting current availability of these grains in local markets. In the northern highlands, the beginning of the winter harvesting season for wheat and barley is expected to be improving access to food for some rural households, although quantities harvested are small. Meanwhile, in northern, central, and southern highlands, local wheat and barley are in high demand as farmers seek seeds for planting alongside the beginning of land preparation and planting for summer cereals. Some shortages are likely, as is typical for this time of year.

    The first rainy season (March to May 2021) has started around two to three weeks late in most areas. As a result, cropland and pasture conditions have been below average across much of the western part of the country (Figure 5). Rainfall in the first rainy season is forecast to be below average overall, and high prices of agriculture inputs, high fuel prices, water shortages, and limited access to land continue to pose challenges for farmers. Agricultural pest control also remains a challenge due to high prices of pesticides and insecticides. In order to cope with increasing costs, farmers have shifted to using traditional methods of pest control and organic fertilizer (manure), with negative implications for yields.

    Livestock ownership is critical for much of Yemen’s rural population. Households typically keep sheep, goats, and cattle, and consume and sell their products. The ability to sell an animal for cash quickly when faced with a shock is a crucial safety net for many rural Yemenis. According to key informants, average prices of average-sized one-year-old goats and sheep in the second half of March were highest in Aden, Abyan, and Lahj, and lowest in Hajjah and Al Hudaydah. Prices increased during the first week of Ramadan due to increased demand. This benefited producers but likely limited access of some poor households—particularly in urban areas—to livestock products.

    Yemen continues to be impacted by a second wave of COVID-19. Although the number of new cases reported daily has been generally declining in April, monitoring continues to be limited by the absence of reporting in the north. As of March 30, 2021, Yemen has received 360,000 of a total 1.9 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine allocated under the COVAX program. Ongoing control measures include increased screening and quarantine measures at ports relative to the pre-COVID period in early 2020. Additionally, in response to the second wave, authorities closed schools, postponed university exams, and closed wedding halls. Although other control measures (such as reducing operating hours for markets, malls, and mosques) were enacted, these are not being enforced as of late April.

    Suspected cholera incidence has remained relatively low in 2021. From January 1 to February 28, 2021, a total 9,643 of suspected cholera cases and two associated deaths (CFR 0.02%) were reported, significantly lower than during the same period of last year. However, risk of water- and vector-borne diseases such as cholera is currently increasing with the start of the first rainy season. Areas with poor access to clean water and areas impacted by floods—which can disrupt access to clean water supply—are at elevated risk.

    According to WFP reporting, 8.3 million people were targeted with humanitarian food assistance in the March 2021 distribution cycle. This followed approximately 9.3 million people receiving assistance in February according to FSAC. This reflects stability in the emergency food assistance program, which continues to target southern beneficiaries monthly and northern beneficiaries once every two months. In total, nearly 13 million people (approaching half the country’s population) are being targeted. WFP has continued to report the absence of major interruption to operations due to fuel shortages, though some delays (3-4 days) have been reported at the district level. Meanwhile, in response to early school closures, WFP increased school feeding rations and planned to distribute remaining stocks as one-off take-home rations.

    Overall, access to food and income remains below average for most Yemenis, with rising costs of food, fuel, and other essential non-food commodities further constraining households’ available resources in recent months. However, for poor households across Yemen, increased Zakat (gifts) and remittances during Ramadan—as well as peak livestock selling prices for pastoralist households—are expected to be temporarily supporting increased access to food and income, with many households facing reduced consumption gaps and some households experiencing improved food security outcomes during this time. Additionally, the lean season is currently ending across highland areas with the beginning of the summer agricultural season, supporting access to income. Some cereal harvesting in the northern highlands is also expected to be improving access to food for rural households, with Crisis! (IPC Phase 3!) outcomes now expected in Hajjah and Amran at the area level. Meanwhile, harvesting of summer fruits (mango, banana) and onion in coastal areas is expected to be supporting access to income through labor opportunities and crop sales. However, livelihoods are significantly eroded in Yemen and, according to available evidence including reports from key informants, most poor households have likely already exhausted most available coping strategies including selling assets, spending savings, and reducing essential non-food expenditures. Even in the presence of large-scale humanitarian assistance, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are widespread, with millions of poor households across Yemen likely facing food consumption gaps or engaging in damaging livelihood coping strategies. Key informants report that worst-affected households are resorting to more extreme coping strategies including early marriage of daughters or sending sons to join armed groups.


    [1] Covers one month’s worth of basic foods for an average-sized household of seven


    The assumptions used to develop FEWS NET’s most likely scenario for the period of February to September 2021 remain unchanged, except the following:

    • Given current status of peace talks and historical trends, no development in the Saudi ceasefire proposal is expected during the projected period. While this will likely aggravate tensions between all parties, there will likely be no discernable change in the conflict, nor the level of the Saudi Arabia’s involvement, until both Yemeni sides agree to the terms.
    • The number of newly reported COVID-19 cases is expected to remain at current relatively higher levels in the coming one to three months, given the likelihood of increased spread during Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr and given the length of outbreaks observed previously in Yemen and elsewhere. During the remainder of the projection period, the number of newly reported COVID-19 cases is expected to be lower. Throughout the projection period, underreporting of cases is likely to continue. Some limited vaccination is expected in the scenario period. Currently enacted control measures are expected to remain in place. Restrictions on businesses and gatherings are likely to remain limited and unenforced.
    • In lowland areas (Tihama, and parts of Hajjah, Lahj, Shabwah, and Hadramout), currently below-average pasture conditions in some areas are expected to worsen throughout the projection period, with shortages of pasture and fodder likely from around June through the remainder of the projection period. In northern, central, and southern highland areas, the start of the second rainy season will likely lead to improvements in current below-average pasture conditions in May/June, with average pasture availability likely from around late August through the remainder of the projection period.
    • Livestock body conditions and productivity will likely remain poor in some areas due to below-average pasture conditions and fodder shortages, lack of veterinary services, and high medication costs. In lowland areas (Tihama, and parts of Hajjah, Lahj, Shabwah, and Hadramout), below-average livestock body conditions are likely from around June through the remainder of the projection period. In northern, central, and southern highland areas, improved livestock body conditions are expected around late July/August, with average livestock body conditions likely to persist through the remainder of the projection period.


    During the remainder of Ramadan through the advent of Eid al-Fitr holidays in mid-May, many poor households are expected to continue slightly improved food security outcomes. However, Zakat and improved outcomes will not be maintained past mid-May.

    In coastal areas, summer harvesting will continue to provide some sources of income through around mid-May, with the lean season expected to progress from July to August before the onset of the next agricultural season in August/September. In highland areas, agricultural activities will likely continue to provide some income-earning opportunities throughout the projection period. In the eastern plateau, the lean season will be beginning by September. Despite seasonal improvements expected in highland and coastal areas, agricultural households in areas worst impacted by precipitation deficits in the first rainy season and high prices of fuel for irrigation will likely access less income than last year and less than what is usual for this time of the season, and pastoralist and agro-pastoralist households in many areas will also likely experience lower access to food and income relative to last year and normal levels due to poor pasture and livestock body conditions. Furthermore, throughout the projection period, conflict and deteriorating macroeconomic conditions are expected to contribute to further food and fuel price increases and reduced access to income, further reducing purchasing power for millions of Yemenis.

    In Marib, shifting patterns of conflict make civilians (including those living in displacement settlements) in and around Marib City particularly vulnerable, should conflict progress eastward and displace or re-displace households. Although not the most likely scenario, it remains possible that Houthi forces take control of Marib City during the projection period  (see “events that might change the outlook” in the February 2021 Food Security Outlook report).

    The prevalence of acute malnutrition through the typical peak around May to July is expected to seasonally increase through the typical peak around May to July (as has been the case in 2019 and 2020 according to WHO nutrition screening data) due to increased disease prevalence, and then decline somewhat through the end of the projection period. During this time, conflict is likely to continue to limit access to health and nutritional services.

    Overall, widespread Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and Crisis! (IPC Phase 3!) outcomes are expected to persist at the area-level throughout the projection period, with 17-19 million people expected to remain in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Overall and particularly in areas worst affected by conflict and rising food and fuel prices, some households across Yemen are expected to deteriorate to Emergency (IPC Phase 4) and Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5) throughout the projection period. Though not the most likely scenario, Famine (IPC Phase 5) remains possible should there be a significant shock to commercial import levels or if food supply is cut off from particular areas for a prolonged period.

    Seasonal improvements in food security in some areas are not reflected in the food insecurity mapping given that these improvements are not enough to change area-level phases.

    Events that Might Change the Outlook

    In addition to those included in the February 2021 Food Security Outlook, possible events that could change the most-likely scenario through September 2021 include:



    Impact on food security outcomes


    Further COVID-19 control measures are enacted or enforced

    Disruptions to food supply chains and to income-earning would be likely in some areas. Food prices would be expected to increase more rapidly and access to income would be further constrained. An additional number of households would be expected to deteriorate from Stressed (IPC Phase 2) to Crisis (IPC Phase 3), and from Crisis (IPC Phase 3) to Emergency (IPC Phase 4) or worse outcomes.

    National, but especially northern areas

    Significant limitation or inability of humanitarian actors to deliver assistance as planned


    If significant delays in the delivery of humanitarian assistance in northern Houthi-controlled areas (beyond what is anticipated, such that deliveries occur more infrequently than every other month) result in further effective reductions in food assistance – or if changing patterns of conflict, weather shocks, or COVID-19 related movement restrictions significantly disrupt assistance supply chains and humanitarian access – access to food would be further reduced and deterioration would be more rapid.


    Figures This is a map of Yemen showing that parts of Marib, Al Hudaydah, Taizz, and Sana'a have been worst-affected by conflict incid

    Figure 1

    Figure 1

    Source: Intelyse

    This is a graph showing that about 50% of food imports in Jan-March 2021 have entered through the Red Sea Ports, higher than

    Figure 2

    Figure 2

    Source: FEWS NET using data from MTI and Standardization, Metrology & Quality Control O…

    This map shows that wheat flour prices have increased everywhere, but southern governorates have experienced the greatest whe

    Figure 3

    Figure 3

    Source: FEWS NET, using data from FAO

    This chart shows that terms of trade are worse than last year in most governorates but are mixed in some northern governorate

    Figure 4

    Figure 4

    Source: FEWS NET, using data from FAO

    This map shows worse-than-normal vegetation conditions across Yemen's highlands and much of the Red Sea coast.

    Figure 5

    Figure 5

    Source: USGS/EROS

    This Food Security Outlook Update provides an analysis of current acute food insecurity conditions and any changes to FEWS NET's latest projection of acute food insecurity outcomes in the specified geography over the next six months. Learn more here.

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