Staving off Famine in Yemen Requires Urgent Port Overhaul: UNDP

Improvements at Yemen’s ports are needed to ease the cost of importing basic supplies, including food, to the country, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

In Yemen, which has been at war since 2015, 5 million people are one step away from famine. Nearly 50,000 are already experiencing famine, and more than 16 million people are food insecure. The country imports 90% of its food.

Yet the cause of food insecurity is not the availability of food, but its price, UNDP Yemen Resident Representative Auke Lootsma told Devex.

“When it comes to the cost of food, various research shows that transport cost is making up 50% of the cost of food in Yemen. Now, why is this important, other than being astronomical in the first place?” Loostma said. “Almost all food is imported … It makes it very vulnerable to global price shocks, but also anything that contributes to the cost of food is easily felt in the market price by the ordinary Yemeni.”

The cost of wheat has doubled during the war, according to UNDP. A population affected by job losses and salary reductions during the six-year conflict cannot afford to buy food at such prices.

World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley has described the “totally man-made” situation in Yemen as “hell.” The agency needs $1.9 billion to provide necessary food assistance in 2021, while a recent international pledging conference for the country only raised $1.67 billion of the $4 billion the U.N. requested for all its agencies operating there.

Because of current regulations, any food and other cargo being shipped to Yemen must first be inspected at a port outside the country, such as in Djibouti or Saudi Arabia. This means it must be unloaded in a third country, inspected, and then reloaded. Lootsma said this process adds time and costs to shipping to Yemen, because goods cannot be sent straight there.

Insurance companies also charge extremely high rates for war insurance risk premiums, which makes the cost of shipping to Yemen as much as 16 times higher than something arriving in neighboring Oman, he said. Insurance costs for shipping goods, including food, to the Port of Aden can reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

Once a ship finally does make it to port, damage from the war, lack of maintenance, and other infrastructure issues contribute to long wait times. Lootsma said a ship can spend 16 days anchored outside the port before it may enter, and then 10 days at berth while it is unloaded. Ships then leave empty because Yemen doesn’t have any goods to export, making the system even more inefficient for shipping companies.

“We decided to have a closer look at these ports and see what it is that we can do to improve efficiency, the productivity of the ports themselves, how we deal with these insurances and these inspection issues, and how, in turn, we can then reduce the price of food in country to really deal with food security issues,” Lootsma said.

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