Yemen: The story of the child that survives

by Gwenaelle Garnier and Abeer Etefa | World Food Programme
Friday, 21 December 2018 09:00 GMT

Children displaced from the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah have a meal in a shelter in Sanaa, Yemen November 1, 2018. Picture taken November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Yemen’s crisis risks creating a hidden legacy which will last long after the guns fall silent

Gwenaelle Garnier is emergency nutritionist and Abeer Etefa is senior communications officer at the World Food Programme.

When Fares Ahmed lost his son to cholera this summer, a 10-kilogram bag of wheat flour was selling for 5,000 Yemeni Riyals (US$20) on the market. Today that bag costs 15,000 Riyals, several times more than the estimated average daily income.

Fares hasn’t been paid for the last three years for his day job and relies on ad-hoc work. “On a good day we have wheat flour and rice for the children. Most days this is not possible.”

Confronted daily with images of emaciated children, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there is no food in Yemen. In fact, there’s food all around, but economic collapse has caused the value of the Riyal to plummet and the price of most basic food items to soar. A simple nutritious meal is no longer attainable for many families. 

The food security crisis in Yemen is man-made, a perfect storm of conflict, economic collapse, rising prices, and problems of supply and distribution. The World Food Programme and partners are providing nutrition support to 1.3 million children and pregnant and breastfeeding women, with plans to scale up further. But the situation is complex.

The near collapse of the public health sector has seen half of health facilities close. And while we are operating in 70 percent of those still functioning, many people in need of treatment are stuck in their homes due to fighting, or can’t afford transport there. Access and administrative issues mean we can’t get supplies into some areas, and we can’t secure enough visas for our international staff. Other humanitarian organizations face the same challenges.

The day we met him, Fares had brought his daughter, Angham, to Hajjah hospital. Recovering from cholera, Angham was 19 months old and weighed 6.6 kilograms – just heavier than a domestic cat. “The doctors tell me that she’s malnourished,” Fares said. “She is the apple of my eye and it breaks my heart to stand helpless and see her suffer from one disease after the other.”

This is a tale of two children—Fares Ahmed’s son and daughter—but they could be any two children in Yemen. The story of Fares’ son, like that of the 85 000 children thought to have died from severe hunger or disease, is one the world is confronted with daily. We want to tell the lesser-known story, the one of the child that survives.

Angham’s crossroads

An empty plate night after night can lead to acute malnutrition, sickness and death, but a scarce plate month after month or year after year—if it happens during the crucial period of pregnancy and early childhood—can have lifelong consequences for a child.

From the moment she was conceived, nutrition has helped shape Angham’s destiny, when the food her mother ate began fueling a multitude of biological reactions needed to develop her brain, body and immune system. It continued after birth, when this rapid period of growth depended on a cocktail of nutrients provided by breastmilk and then the family food.

Inadequate nutrition and recurring sickness in this period can compromise this development and lead to stunting. Stunting jeapordizes a child’s physical and intellectual capabilities, school performance and immune system, and increases the risk of serious diseases like diabetes and cancer later in life. It impacts communities and countries too, reducing a country’s GDP and straining the health system. The window of opportunity for Angham to get the nutrition she needs to set her up for a happy and healthy life is small – the 1,000 days from conception to her second birthday.

Reports show that half of children in Yemen are stunted, and that stunting rates have been increasing steadily since the beginning of the crisis.

We know how to prevent stunting. The humanitarian community has all the expertise needed to deliver effective nutrition interventions in an emergency context. What we need is unimpeded access, visas for our staff, funding to scale up, and—of course—lasting peace.

Today in Yemen, we are in a race to save lives. But survival isn’t the only objective: We need to ensure that those who survive have a future to look forward to and a chance to live out their potential.

We only have 1,000 days to get it right. The clock is ticking.