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With assistance paused, some SBA areas to deteriorate to Emergency (IPC Phase 4)

  • Food Security Outlook Update
  • Yemen
  • December 2023
With assistance paused, some SBA areas to deteriorate to Emergency (IPC Phase 4)

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  • Key Messages
  • Current Situation
  • Updated Assumptions
  • Projected Outlook through May 2024
  • Most likely food security outcomes and areas receiving significant levels of humanitarian assistance
  • Key Messages
    • The conflict in Yemen has been ongoing for more than nine years, with significant detrimental impacts to the economy and livelihoods. Despite the sustained reduction in conflict since mid-2022, recovery of livelihoods and income-earning has largely been prevented by the impacts of economic warfare between the Sana’a-based authorities (SBA) and internationally-recognized government (IRG) and by several rounds of reductions to humanitarian food assistance since 2022 that have stretched households’ resources. Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and Crisis! (IPC Phase 3!) outcomes are currently widespread given limited livelihood options amid above-average food prices, with worst-affected households facing Emergency (IPC Phase 4) or worse outcomes.
    • As of December 2023, the WFP has paused all humanitarian assistance under the General Food Assistance (GFA) program to SBA-controlled areas, affecting around 9.5 million beneficiaries. Meanwhile, the 3.6 million beneficiaries in IRG-controlled areas are now expected to be receiving assistance equivalent to approximately a quarter of their minimum energy needs. This follows several rounds of reductions to assistance provision nationwide starting in 2022; prior to the reductions, all 13 million beneficiaries across Yemen were receiving assistance equivalent to approximately 80 percent of their minimum energy needs.
    • In SBA areas, millions of poor households will be overall unable to compensate for the loss of assistance from other food and income sources, leading to widening food consumption gaps and/or severe coping. However, deterioration in food security at the population level will occur gradually, as stocks from the ongoing late 2023 main cereal harvest and zakat from better-off households during Ramadan and Eid in March/April will provide some temporary seasonal support. However, in the February to May 2024 period, area-level deterioration to Emergency (IPC Phase 4) is anticipated in several governorates where over half of the population previously received humanitarian assistance.
    • In IRG areas, the SBA’s ongoing blockade of oil exports is significantly exacerbating pre-existing shortages of government revenue and foreign exchange. Due to the severe situation, the IRG halted public currency auctions in October 2023. The local currency is anticipated to continue depreciating throughout the projection period, driving further food and fuel price increases. An increase in the number of households facing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes is anticipated throughout the projection period overall, despite periods of temporary seasonal support from the ongoing main cereal harvest and from zakat during Ramadan and Eid in March/April.

    Current Situation

    In response to the Israeli military operation in Gaza that started in late October, forces of the Sana’a-based authorities (SBA) launched multiple missile and drone strikes targeting southern Israel. In November, the SBA also seized a commercial cargo ship, the Galaxy Leader, in the Red Sea and announced that it would prevent the passage of all commercial ships in the Red Sea destined for Israeli ports. Despite calls in early December by the UN Security Council to end such threats to maritime security in the Red and Arabian Seas, the SBA has attacked several vessels in early December. The SBA’s military spokesman also reiterated warnings, announcing that all vessels dealing with Israeli ports are legitimate targets. In response, several members of the United States Congress introduced legislation calling for Ansar Allah (the formal name of the group referred to as the SBA) to be redesignated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). 

    The conflict in the Middle East and the mounting threats by the SBA against commercial vessels in the Red Sea have become top challenges for public-facing peace talks between SBA leaders and officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), who back the internationally-recognized government (IRG). Though the developments in Gaza caused a brief pause in the dialogue on the Saudi-proposed peace plan, the KSA aims to accelerate the talks to avoid the potential for regional developments derailing the process. Still, diverging proposals presented by the SBA highlight the complexity of resolving outstanding disagreements. Most notably, the SBA continues to insist that the IRG pay the salaries of all public sector employees—including in those who joined the SBA’s military after 2015—using the IRG’s oil revenue. Currently, civil servants in SBA areas receive salaries sporadically, often in the form of incentive payments only two or three times per year. Those who have managed to become registered on the IRG’s official list of civil servants must physically travel to IRG areas to collect their salaries, posing a significant barrier for many.

    Alongside the increase in attacks on commercial cargo ships in the Red Sea in November and December, the SBA has launched an increasing number of drone and missile attacks around Marib—notably along the front lines west and south of the city—and deployed significant reinforcements to the area. Elsewhere in Yemen, shelling and ground skirmishes continue, with typical periodic upticks in frontline areas of Marib, Taizz, Al Jawf, and Al Dhale’e governorates (Figure 1). Overall, however, levels of conflict remain relatively subdued, in a continuation of the post-truce pattern of low-intensity clashes.

    Figure 1

    Territorial control of Yemen as of December 2023
    most western governorates are under SBA control

    Source: Yemeni security firm

    Despite the sustained reduction in conflict in most areas, some active conflict continues to force affected households away from their homes as they seek safer locations, particularly in frontline areas. According to IOM monitoring, around 9,744 households (58,464 individuals) experienced displacement from IRG-controlled areas at least once between January 1 and December 9, 2023. This is similar to the 9,849 households (59,094 individuals) displaced in the same period of 2022, and significantly lower (by 57 percent) than the 22,925 households (137,550 individuals) displaced in the same period of 2021, mainly attributed to the decline in conflict since the truce in April 2022 and particularly in the post-truce period starting in October 2022. However, the primary reason for displacement continues to be conflict-related safety and security concerns. While no data are available to track population displacement in SBA-controlled areas, it is expected that the trend is similar to the declining trend in IRG areas given the nationwide reduction in conflict. 

    Despite lower levels of military combat, the major parties to the conflict continue to engage in full-scale economic warfare. The most consequential actions have been taken by the SBA against the IRG. Most notably, the SBA continues to block oil exports from IRG areas using the threat of drone strikes, which is denying the IRG what is typically its most important source of revenue and foreign exchange. This blockade has been ongoing since the expiration of the truce in October 2022, well over a year ago. 

    The SBA also continues to employ strategies seeking to divert imports from Aden to Al Hudaydah, including by banning internal trade—from IRG to SBA areas via land borders—of all imported commodities as well as certain domestically-produced non-food commodities (such as cooking gas and cement). Additionally, the SBA has frozen the IRG’s funds for Yemen Airways held in SBA-controlled bank accounts. These measures are together serving to exacerbate the IRG’s pre-existing problems of insufficient revenue, foreign exchange shortages, and widening gaps in the public budget. As of December 15, the Aden-based Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) had not resumed conducting weekly public currency auctions after halting them on October 31 without any official announcement, likely due to shortages of foreign currency. 

    The IRG’s economic difficulties continue to drive depreciation of the Aden-based rial. On average in November, the unofficial exchange rate in Aden was recorded at 1,524 YER/USD, according to data from FAO. This is a 4 percent loss in value compared to the prior month and a 34 percent loss in value compared to the same time last year. Meanwhile, the Sana’a-based rial has remained generally stable as usual, with the exchange rate in the Amanat Al Asimah (Sana’a city) reference market averaging 526 YER/USD in November. 

    According to data reported by WFP VAM, a total 2.84 million MT of fuel was imported nationwide from January to September 2023 (Figure 2), 7 percent less than during the same period of 2022. Of this total, 62 percent was discharged in the SBA-controlled Red Sea ports while the remaining 38 percent was discharged in the IRG-controlled Aden and Al Mukalla seaports. According to data reported by WFP, the amount of fuel imported via the Red Sea ports increased notably with the easing of importation restrictions alongside the truce in April 2022.

    Figure 2

    Amount of fuel (MT) discharged monthly in the Red Sea ports and in Aden & Al Mukalla ports, January 2022 to September 2023
    graph showing monthly fuel import levels fluctuate but increased in the Red Sea ports starting in April 2022

    Source: FEWS NET, using data from WFP

    Supported by smooth importation under lighter restrictions, fuel has remained generally available in Yemen’s major markets throughout 2023. This has largely enabled households to purchase fuel at official and commercial prices (which can be linked to official prices but can deviate), rather than the higher unofficial prices that households must pay during times of shortages. Fuel prices in Yemen are largely driven by global prices, the value of the local currency, and transportation costs to inland markets. Global fuel prices recently peaked in September 2023 when Brent crude oil prices averaged 93.72 USD per barrel, followed by an 11 percent cumulative decline in the following two months. However, fuel prices in IRG areas continued increasing from September to November 2023 (Figure 3), with petrol and diesel prices in Aden recording increases of 15 and 18 percent, respectively, during this period, to reach 1,276 YER/L for petrol and 1,463 YER/L for diesel. These price increases are attributed to the depreciation of the Aden-based rial as well as the IRG’s inability to enforce price controls. Meanwhile, in SBA-controlled areas, fuel prices have been largely stable from August to October, though a slight uptick (of 2 percent for official petrol prices and 3 percent for official diesel prices) was recorded in November, according to FAO data. The relatively lower transmission of global price increases to domestic prices in SBA areas is attributed to the presence of local stocks and price controls by the SBA authorities, while the relatively stable exchange is also contributing to overall stable domestic prices. According to data from FAO, official prices of both petrol and diesel in Amanat Al Asimah averaged 469 YER/L in November. These prices were 4 percent higher compared to the previous month, though still lower than in November of last year, by 11 percent for petrol and 25 percent for diesel. 

    Figure 3

    Global Brent crude oil prices against official fuel prices in IRG areas, monthly, January to November 2023
    fuel prices (globally and in IRG areas) increased beginning around June 2023 but continued to increase in IRG areas in October and November despite declining global prices

    Source: FEWS NET, using data from FAO and Macrotrends

    Yemen is heavily reliant on imports to meet domestic food consumption needs, with over 90 percent of staple wheat flour typically imported. From January to October 2023, a total 4.49 million MT of basic food commodities were imported through Yemen’s major sea and land ports, according to data reported by WFP. Out of this total, 77 percent was imported through the SBA-controlled Red Sea ports, with the remaining 23 percent imported through the IRG-controlled Aden and Al Mukalla ports. From January to October 2023, the volume imported at the national level was 4 percent higher than during the same period of 2022 and similar to the four-year average (Figure 4). Meanwhile, the amount imported via IRG-controlled ports was 34 percent lower than the four-year average, likely at least partially due to the shifting of imports of some basic food commodities—such as milk and cooking oil—from Aden seaport to the Red Sea ports following the SBA’s ban on imports via land borders. 

    Figure 4

    Food imports in 2023 as percent change from 2022 and the four-year average; IRG areas, SBA areas, and national total
    imports level decreased in IRG areas but increased in SBA areas

    Source: FEWS NET, using WFP data

    Despite the persistence of access constraints along key trade routes, staple foods remain available in most major markets nationwide. Despite this, many poor households cannot afford sufficient food from markets given high prices amid shortages of income-earning opportunities. From October to November 2023, prices of key staple grains (imported wheat flour and non-basmati rice) as well as the overall cost of the Minimum Food Basket (MFB) remained stable in both Amanat al Asimah and Aden reference markets, according to FAO data. In Amanat al Asimah, the cost of staple wheat flour and the MFB in November were 7 percent and 8 percent lower, respectively, than at the same time last year. In Aden, the cost of wheat flour and the MFB in November were similar to last year and 9 percent higher than last year, respectively. However, prices of non-basmati rice—another key staple for households in coastal regions—were 75 percent higher than last year, driven by comparatively less significant global price declines amid depreciation of the local currency. Though these price trends are somewhat more favorable for market-dependent households than in past years (Figure 5), poor households have likely not benefited much given stable or declining wage rates over the past year. Prices also remain above average overall. In Amanat al Asimah and Aden, prices of staple wheat flour in November were 13 percent and 54 percent higher, respectively, than the four-year average. Similarly, the cost of the MFB in November was 13 percent higher than the four-year average in Amanat al Asimah and 57 percent higher than the four-year average in Aden.

    Figure 5

    Average cost of the Minimum Food Basket (MFB) in YER, January 2015 to November 2023
    The cost has been increasing continuously in IRG areas but started decreasing in SBA areas in 2022

    Source: FAO

    Despite the limited contribution to the total national food supply, crop and livestock production are important livelihood activities for poor rural households across Yemen. Currently in December, lowland areas are in the midst of the main cereal harvest, while highland areas concluded harvesting in mid-November. Due to below-average rainfall during the July to October second rainy season, many households in highland areas (where cereals are cultivated in terraces and are mostly rainfed) harvested lower amounts than last year and significantly lower amounts compared to the pre-conflict period. Meanwhile, in lowland areas, production is expected to be similar to last year though lower than the pre-conflict period. Additionally, availability of agricultural and non-agricultural labor opportunities is currently at seasonally high levels in most rural areas. In highland areas—particularly in Sana’a, Amran, Dhamar, and Hajjah—households are cultivating cereals and pulses as well as engaging in land preparation for vegetables and fruits. Meanwhile, households in the northern highlands are harvesting citrus, with the main production areas in Sa’adah and Marib; this is expected to provide income-earning opportunities for millions of daily wage earners nationwide throughout the supply and marketing chains. Meanwhile, along the western coast and the Tihama plain, farmers are harvesting sorghum, millet, sesame, and watermelon, while farmers along the Arabian Sea coast are undertaking activities including planting for millet, maize, and mango, as well as fertilizing and weeding to facilitate vegetable growth. Livestock milk production is also generally at seasonally high levels in December.

    In November, temperatures were largely below average in the western highlands. This negatively affected crops and livestock due to frost waves and increased spread of crop and livestock and diseases. According to FAO reporting and ground information from key informants, late blight on tomatoes and powdery mildew on squash are widespread, while white fly infestations and Fusarium mold have infected onion and garlic crops, particularly in the central and northern highlands. In addition, frost poses a significant danger to small-scale farmers, many of whom experienced damage to vegetable crops due to browning or blackening, dropped leaves and flowers, and cracked fruits.

    For years, WFP has been reaching millions of households – representing a significant share of the population in Yemen (Figure 6) – with regular distributions of humanitarian food assistance. The number of beneficiaries was scaled up throughout 2019, from around 9 million to around 13 million beneficiaries (well over a third of the national population) by the end of the year. These beneficiaries were reached monthly with assistance equivalent to around 80 percent of a households’ minimum energy requirements through the end of 2019. From early 2020 to mid-2021, beneficiaries in SBA areas saw their assistance temporarily reduced to one distribution every two months, with monthly distributions resuming in the second half of 2021. Since then, however, beneficiaries in both IRG and SBA areas have experienced several iterations of reductions in assistance distribution size and frequency, attributed by WFP to funding shortfalls. As of late 2023, WFP reported reaching beneficiaries on a cyclical basis approximately once every six weeks with rations per distribution equivalent to 41 percent of a household’s minimum energy requirements for a one month period.1 As such, assistance was providing households with around a quarter of their minimum energy requirements overall, significantly less than the 80 percent that beneficiary households were receiving in late 2021, two years prior. Furthermore, it should be noted that typical sharing practices have stretched assistance rations even thinner for beneficiary households.

    Figure 6

    Estimated percent of governorate population targeted under the general food assistance (GFA) program
    governorates in western Yemen have the highest share of the population as HFA beneficiaries

    Source: FEWS NET using data from FSAC

    In order to prioritize amid scarce funding, WFP also concluded a beneficiary verification activity for IRG areas in late 2020 that slightly reduced the number of beneficiaries of humanitarian food assistance. Meanwhile, in SBA areas, though similar initiatives have been under negotiation between WFP and local authorities, no agreement has been reached. Given this, on December 5, WFP announced that it would pause all assistance under the general food assistance (GFA) program in SBA-controlled areas, effective in December, with the decision attributed to the absence of an agreement amid insufficient funding. According to WFP, distributions will resume upon an agreement to reduce the number of beneficiaries in SBA areas from 9.5 million to 6.5 million. Assistance will continue in IRG areas, albeit at the current lower levels. Resilience and livelihoods, nutrition, and school feeding programs will continue nationwide, subject to the availability of funding.

    Current food security outcomes

    As of late December, poor households in highland areas have nearly exhausted their food stocks from the below-average main cereal harvest that concluded in mid-November. Meanwhile, poor households in lowland areas continue to benefit from the ongoing cereal harvest. Additionally, poor households across the country are benefiting from some seasonal income-earning opportunities associated mainly with the vegetable cultivation season in the lowlands and the citrus harvest in the northern highlands (and opportunities along the nationwide supply and marketing chains)Overall, however, the majority of poor households remain highly dependent on markets for food amid constrained income-earning opportunities, above-average food and non-food prices, and reduced humanitarian assistance.

    In SBA areas, the recent pause in humanitarian assistance has caused around 9.5 million beneficiaries in areas under SBA control to lose what was still an important overall contribution to their total food needs. However, though this is the first total pause that has occurred since the onset of the intervention, beneficiary households in SBA areas have experienced temporary cuts and sustained reductions in food assistance benefits at several points in time since early 2020, and many beneficiaries have frequently experienced long periods of unofficial cuts due to logistical constraints or funding issues. As such, the pause in assistance in SBA areas is not expected to have an immediate severe negative impact on all beneficiary households’ food consumption, particularly as the recently concluded or ongoing cereal harvest and the ongoing fruit harvest has provided many rural households with seasonal food and income that will help prevent more rapid deterioration. However, some beneficiaries are expected to have received their last assistance distribution in September/October. Of these, many who previously considered humanitarian assistance to be their primary source of food (a notable share in some areas according to available survey data) as well as poor landless households who did not receive any harvest and who face highly limited income-earning opportunities (such as displaced households living in settlements), are likely to be intensifying engagement in severe coping strategies such as sending children for risky job opportunities and/or are likely facing food consumption gaps characterized by skipping meals or going to bed hungry, given their overall limited ability to compensate for the loss of assistance despite seasonal improvements.

    In IRG areas, continuous economic decline and significantly above-average food prices have further strained livelihoods and household purchasing power. At the same time, reductions in humanitarian assistance have increased market dependence for beneficiary households. High market dependence amid elevated prices and limited income is expected to be driving widening food consumption gaps for many poor households who have already largely exhausted coping capacity, with greatest concern for those who previously considered assistance to be their primary source of food or income and who are facing limited and shrinking income-earning opportunities, such as households living in displacement settlements and those who are experiencing worsening delays in salary payments. 

    Overall, millions of households are expected to be facing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes in December, with poor households who have lost assistance in SBA areas among the worst affected. At the governorate level, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and Crisis! (IPC Phase 3!) outcomes are expected to be widespread, with worst-affected households facing Emergency (IPC Phase 4) or worse outcomes.

    Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
    two main rainy and agricultural seasons

    Source: FEWS NET


    Updated Assumptions

    The assumptions used to develop FEWS NET’s most likely scenario for the Yemen Food Security Outlook for October 2023 to May 2024 remain unchanged, except for the following:

    • While the outbreak of renewed fighting in Israel and the Gaza Strip in October disrupted negotiations between SBA and Saudi officials, a new round of peace talks is likely in the first quarter of 2024 given the continued strong interest of Saudi Arabia to reach a peace deal in Yemen.
    • The slight escalation in fighting observed around Marib and the increase in shelling by the SBA near the Saudi border will likely be sustained as the SBA attempts to strengthen its position amid the resumption of negotiations.
    • Missile and drone attacks launched by the SBA against Israel and Israeli-linked commercial shipping are likely to continue. However, the SBA is expected to manage escalation, including by avoiding strikes against manned U.S. military naval and air platforms. 

    • The provision of humanitarian food assistance is anticipated to continue at current levels during the projection period, with the pause in assistance in SBA areas likely to be sustained. Even if WFP and SBA authorities reach an agreement, it will take several months for WFP to re-start operations given significant supply chain and operational disruptions during the pause. 

    • Due to significant IRG revenue shortages, worsening delays and disruptions to the payment of civil servant salaries are anticipated during the projection period, particularly for the military sector and education sector in IRG areas. However, employees in SBA areas will continue to be the worst affected overall.


    Projected Outlook through May 2024

    During the holy month of Ramadan in March and early April and the subsequent Eid holidays, poor households across the country will benefit from an increase in food and financial support (zakat, sadaka) from better-off households. Additionally, rural farming households in northern highland areas will harvest wheat and barley in March and April, providing some temporary support to food consumption, though resources will likely be exhausted by late April/May. Meanwhile the mango season in the lowlands will slightly improve access to income-earning opportunities nationwide starting in March by providing labor opportunities related to agricultural activities as well as income-earning opportunities along the marketing chain, mainly through petty trade. 

    In IRG areas, food prices are anticipated to rise further throughout the projection period, and additional delays in the payment of civil servant salaries are likely. The availability of other income-earning opportunities will also be limited by the deteriorating business environment, while competition for available opportunities will likely increase given rising market prices. With millions of households also receiving reduced humanitarian food assistance—now expected to be providing around a quarter of minimum energy requirements—community support structures will be stretched thin. Despite some temporary seasonal support during Ramadan, additional poor households will likely to be forced to implement severe income-earning and coping strategies such as collecting plastic bottles or engaging in risky jobs to reduce food consumption gaps. A rising number will face Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes by the end of the projection period.   

    In SBA areas, the number of households facing food consumption gaps and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes will likely remain stable during January before increasing during the lean season in February and early March, when the pause in food assistance will also contribute to widening food consumption gaps. In March and April, social support during Ramadan and the winter cereal harvest in the highlands will likely largely prevent further deterioration. However, poor households are expected to exhaust resources from Ramadan earlier than usual, by the end of April to May, given the absence of assistance alongside the peak of the lean season in highland areas. Overall, additional poor households are expected to engage in severe negative coping strategies such as sending children to engage in risky jobs or face widening food consumption gaps, with a growing number expected to deteriorate to Emergency (IPC Phase 4) or worse over the course of the projection period. 

    Overall, seasonal support from agricultural activities and Ramadan will not be sufficient to compensate for the impacts of continued economic deterioration in IRG areas and the pause in humanitarian food assistance in SBA areas. Nationwide, millions of poor households will likely continue to face food consumption gaps, with the number facing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes expected to increase overall throughout the projection period nationwide. At the governorate level, (IPC Phase 3) and Crisis! (IPC Phase 3!) outcomes will remain widespread, with deterioration to Emergency (IPC Phase 4) expected in the February to May 2024 period in several governorates in SBA areas, where more than half of the total population were previously receiving humanitarian assistance.     

    Table 1
    Possible events that would change the most likely outlook through May 2024
    AreaEventImpact on food security outcomes
    SBA-controlled areasGlobal food traders stop activity in the Red Sea   The SBA’s attacks on commercial ships have forced many global trading companies to re-direct their shipping routes to avoid the Red Sea, though this is unlikely to have meaningfully disrupted imports into Yemen via the Red Sea ports given the lack of viable alternative routes. However, should escalation occur, leading to international military action blocking all ship traffic in the Red Sea, the loss of imports would likely lead to a significant decline in food stocks in SBA areas. While the SBA would be expected to lift the ban on imports via land borders, with traders re-directing imports through the Aden sea port, adjustment of supply chains would not occur immediately. As a result, shortages of food would be likely in SBA areas, with food prices expected to rise sharply. This would further reduce access to food for millions of poor households, whose market dependence has increased recently due to the pause in assistance. Additional households would likely face food consumption gaps or widening food consumption gaps, characteristic of Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or Emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes in the projection period, with populations in Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5). 

    Most likely food security outcomes and areas receiving significant levels of humanitarian assistance

    Recommended citation: FEWS NET. Yemen Food Security Outlook Update December 2023: With assistance paused, some SBA areas to deteriorate to Emergency (IPC Phase 4), 2023.

    1

    According to ground information from key informants, distributions were occurring once every eight weeks in some areas, particularly when ration sizes were higher than the standard 41 percent. It should be noted that notable variability in ration size and distribution frequency is typical. 

    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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