Course:GEOG352/2019/Food Security in Sana'a, Yemen

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With the world’s population still growing at an exponential rate, and the rural-to-urban migration in the geographical south and east ever increasing, food availability is becoming a pressing issue for multiple countries as many populations, especially urban, across the globe now face food insecurity. According to the United Nations, food security can be defined as a “situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.[1] Food security is important in the context of the GEOG 352 course as it can directly impact the level of development in a country and can vary greatly between the rural and urban context. Therefore, we can observe the GEOG 352 themes of urban governance and political transformation as key aspects of food insecurity.

This wiki focuses on food insecurity in Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen, which is located in the west of the country and is considered to be in the Integrated Phase Classification Food Insecurity Phase 4 Emergency.[2] The country’s declining political situation since 2015 and outbreak of conflict has resulted in the inability to access food.[2] By examining how the ongoing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has exacerbated the situation in Yemen, the social, political, and geographical implications can be explored.[2] Not only is the political and economic situation important, but disease, has also amplified the severity of the food insecurity by contaminating available food and clean water. Sana’a serves as a crucial location and point of interest, as it is the country’s central node of transportation and a frequent site of conflict and internally displaced persons (IDP) relocation. Therefore, through the analysis of Sana'a we can analyze the local context of the political situation, economic status, and health to observe how these factors played a part in creating an area at high risk of famine.

Sana'a, Yemen


Food Security

Food security exists when people have physical and economic access to adequate quantities of nutritious foods to meet their dietary needs to sustain a healthy life[1] and it is essential for everyone on Earth. With it, one may thrive in their environment and without it, the likelihood of mortality and morbidity increases significantly.[3] Currently, the main causes of food insecurity are due to problems associated with climate change, urbanization, and food acquisition.[4] With much of the Earth’s climate changing, landscapes are becoming less fertile for the native crops that are being grown, causing crop losses and in many cases zero crop yield. However, this diverges from the needs of a growing global population, as many regions of the world are reliant on subsistence farming and high crop yields.[5] Furthermore, with the rapid urbanization of spaces, especially within the geographical south and east, agricultural lands are being absorbed into urban centres causing the fragmentation of agricultural lands and aggravating the difficulties from having lower food yields.[4] Finally, food acquisition presents itself as one of the leading causes of food insecurity. Not only are food acquisition problems apparent in the geographical south and east, but it’s also found in the geographical north and west, a space less often associated with food insecurity.

Politics and Food Security

Sana'a, Yemen: IPC Acute Food Insecurity Analysis

Over the past few decades a paradigm shift has started taking place in the way that food insecurity, and more specifically famine, is considered. With climate change and decreased agricultural land there tends to be an expectation that famine is the inevitable result of these issues. However, following Amartya Sen’s theory, as described in his book “Development as Freedom”, all famines are avoidable.[6] In fact, in properly functioning multi-party democracies famine is virtually impossible due to democratic institutions upholding people’s right to food.[6] This suggests that even in an environment with a desolate landscape with no agricultural yield, food security could still be present thanks to the presence of a fully-functioning democracy. Unfortunately, there are very few, if any, countries that possess fully-functioning democracies, thus explaining the continued presence of famines if following this theory. Delving further into this problem of government and their structures; the government, and their political conflicts, are also a significant source of food insecurity. Political unrest, economic instability and the increase of displaced people are putting more pressure on countries, with respect to food provisions, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to prioritize the right to food over other issues that must also be addressed. One example of this, which will be the focus of the case study, is Sana’a, Yemen. Being the capital of Yemen, many internally displaced people (IDPs) migrate to this urban centre due to the political unrest in the surrounding regions caused by the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran,[7] thus creating a very unique situation in which famine has flourished.


Due to the Yemeni famine revolving around the proxy war that is occurring, food insecurity is most prevalent in areas where there is active fighting. The people who are most affected by this are IDPs, host families as their resources are stretched thin, and marginalized groups, all of whom are facing challenges in accessing food, even if food distribution sites were unaffected.

Sana'a: The Yemeni Context

The Republic of Yemen is currently facing a severe famine where about 53% of the Yemeni population is suffering from severe food insecurity, equating to approximately 15.9 million people.[8] However, unlike many famines currently plaguing the world due to their geography of being situated in an unfavourable climate producing poor soil, the Yemeni famine is a man-made phenomenon. It represents a blend of physical geographical barriers and the consequences of the actions of man. Yemen is caught up in a regional conflict, a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which can be seen in the larger context of Sunni-Shia power tensions in the Middle East. However, its consequences are localized, where civilians are facing a man-made famine that is entirely preventable.[9]

Yemen is a moderately sized country, with very little arable land to promote agricultural productivity, and the aggravating factor of increasing water scarcity that predicts agricultural output to decrease by up to 40%,[9] ­­as such, there is a large amount of reliance on food imports, which composes of 90% of Yemeni food sources. Unfortunately, with the main port of Hodeidah being under siege by the Houthi militant group, very little food is being distributed throughout the country.[10] Specifically in Sana’a, severe food insecurity has been an increasingly prevalent problem since 2015, when the Houthis took control,[11] and is intensified by internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have migrated to urban centres due to the political unrest in the surrounding regions.[7] Thus aggravating the difficulties of procuring nutritional food in a city that is already suffering from human-caused food acquisition problems.

Yemen road accessibility

Transport Routes

As Yemen’s capital, most populated city and host to the main international airport, Sana'a serves as a crucial port of entry for supplies, and is thus relatively more accessible to food deliveries and humanitarian aid, giving it an advantage over some of the more rural areas of the country. Additionally, one of the few accessible roads left in the Yemen is that between Hodeidah, the country’s main port, and Sana’a, allowing for a more efficient transfer of materials. However, this road is still highly damaged from Saudi airstrikes, and the journey between Hodeidah and Sana’a now takes 12 to 18 hours instead of 8 to 10 hours,[12] making it more difficult and potentially dangerous to transport food and supplies from Hodeidah into Sana’a. As of January 30, 2019, a ceasefire has been declared along that road[13] so that food and aid can reach the capital and then be dispersed throughout the rest of the country, as Sana’a serves as the country’s crucial node of transportation and distribution.

Famine as Strategy

The Saudi-led coalition is using the lack of food access as a strategy for domination, which is carried out through bombings, endemic unemployment and job loss, and inflation[12][14]. This can be seen in the coalition bombing of civilian targets and food centres, including a processing center in Sana’a that produced 40% of Yemen’s cooking oil.[14] This famine has been regarded as “man-made”  because sufficient food is arriving in Sana’a (nearly 90% of Yemen's food is imported), but nobody has the means to the fuel/energy needed to purchase and cook the food.[15] Alex de Waal, a researcher on man-made famines, dubbed the case of Sana’a as, “an economic war with famine as a consequence,”[15] as the Yemeni market is being systematically destroyed through airstrikes.[15] The magnitude and severity of the crisis requires humanitarian food assistance (HFA), without it, “67% of the total population would be in need of urgent action,” meaning more people would be living in affected crisis, emergency, and famine zones.[16]

Food Prices and Availability in Markets

The situation in Sana’a, as in the rest of the country, remains dire, as Sana’a is one of the main sites in which armed conflict and airstrikes have been most severe. In Sana’a, extreme shortages have caused wheat flour prices to skyrocket and there has been a sharp decline in the availability of cooking oil. The price of water in Sana’a has tripled since the conflict began, as the pumping systems have been hit by the lack of diesel fuel. Families rely on water for food preparation and the keeping of livestock, which supports much of the livelihood in the country.[17] As a result, more than half of the shops in Sana’a have been shuttered and rampant unemployment makes it impossible for families to afford the rising food prices. The conflict has limited access to clean water and health services, which has lead to the outbreak of disease, including the 2017 Sana’a cholera outbreak which killed 115 and left 8500 ill.[12] Additionally, the Sana’a airport was closed between August 2016 and November 2017, and during that time, the Ministry of Health estimates that 10,000 Yemenis died from critical health conditions for which they were seeking international medical treatment, but were unable to do so due to the airport closure.[12]

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

With Saudi Arabia preventing food imports from arriving and being distributed, as well as conducting mass airstrikes across the country, more than 3 million civilians have become IDPs and remain so indefinitely. IDPs in Yemen are prone to experience food insecurity more intensely, as they rely on donations and humanitarian assistance, and report to eating less than three meals a day.[2] As a consequence, they often resort to the trafficking of children for child labour, child soldiers, and early marriage to secure food.[18] As Sana'a has significantly more advanced infrastructure, medical treatment, and shelter than Yemen's rural areas, IDPs and other rural inhabitants are flocking to the capital to seek out treatment for malnutrition or other diseases such as cholera, [11] in addition to core relief items and better food access due to the presence of Sana'a's international airport.[18]

Famine and Gender

Additionally, the famine in Yemen has disproportionately affected people based on gender. Yemeni women are usually the first to skip meals or eat smaller portions so the family’s food rations can last longer. Since the outbreak of conflict, early marriage is increasing, and girls aged 8-10 are often married off to reduce the amount of family members to feed or as a source of income to feed the family.[12]

Lessons Learned

Famine is a far more complex phenomenon than meets the eye. It unusually transcends natural occurrences such as crop failure or climate, and is largely due to man-made factors, such as war or government policies. Although Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East, its famine has not been provoked by widespread drought or blight. Rather, the Yemeni famine has been the result of political and social unrest, including Saudi airstrikes and the strategic blockade of key ports. Famine is being used as a deadly war tactic against innocent civilians, as Yemen has found themselves in the crossfires of a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, amidst the 2015 Houthi uprising. Airstrikes have destroyed much of the country's infrastructure, including food processing and distribution facilities, health care facilities, and civilian housing. There is a dire need for international humanitarian funding for development, as scarce resources are further exacerbated by the increase of IDPs. As a result, Yemen's population is facing extreme food insecurity, as food imports are limited and families are unable to afford the mass inflation.

Sana'a, being the country's capital and central node of infrastructure and transportation, serves as a critical case study, as it has often been targeted as the site for airstrikes and conflict, representing the localized effects of the regional power struggle. The problems in food aid distribution due to the long-lasting food crisis in Sana'a and other Houthi controlled urban centres can serve as a space of learning for food aid organizations, as they work to find effective methods of distributing food aid without being pillaged or blocked. Due to exponentially increasing population and urbanization across the geographical south and east, man-made famines will likely be an unfortunate reality for other sites, as they face social and political unrest. Thus, these methodologies then have the potential to be applied to other countries that may face man-made famines, as this is far from being an isolated phenomenon.


  1. 1.0 1.1 FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, & WHO (Eds.). (2017). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017. Rome: FAO.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Yemen - Food Security Outlook. (2018, May). Retrieved March 5, 2019, from
  3. Gundersen, C., Tarasuk, V., Cheng, J., Oliveira, C. de, & Kurdyak, P. (2018). Food insecurity status and mortality among adults in Ontario, Canada. PLOS ONE, 13(8), e0202642.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Arulbalachandran, D., Mullainathan, L., & Latha, S. (2017). Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture. In A. Dhanarajan (Ed.), Sustainable Agriculture towards Food Security (pp. 3–13). Singapore: Springer Singapore.
  5. Moustafa, K. (2018). Food and starvation: is Earth able to feed its growing population? International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 69(4), 385–388.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Laub, Z. (2015, February 25). Who Are Yemen’s Houthis? [Written]. Retrieved from
  8. Yemen IPC Acute Food Insecurity Analysis. (2018), 8. Retrieved from
  9. 9.0 9.1 FAO Country Programming Framework (CPF) Republic of Yemen. (2017), 55.
  10. Casey, R. (2018, September 28). Yemen is undeniably the world’s worst humanitarian crisis: WFP. Retrieved March 5, 2019, from
  11. 11.0 11.1 Kandeh, J., & Kumar, L. (2015). Developing a Relative Ranking of Social Vulnerability of Governorates of Yemen to Humanitarian Crisis. SPRS International Journal of Geo-Information,4(4), 1913-1935. doi:10.3390/ijgi4041913.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 Alles, L. (2017). Missiles and Food: Yemen’s man-made food security crisis. Oxfam. Retrieved from
  13. Yi, Yang. (2019, January 31). UN praises Hodeidah ceasefire for “step forward” on road to Sana’a. Xinhua Net. Retrieved from
  14. 14.0 14.1 Unreported World. (2017, November 01). Retrieved March 18, 2019, from
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Ferguson, J. (2018, July 11). Is Intentional Starvation the Future of War? Retrieved from
  16. Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. (2018, December 1). Yemen: Acute Food Insecurity Situation December 2018 - January 2019 | IPC Global Platform. Retrieved from
  17. WFP Warns Of Food Crisis In Yemen Amid Challenges In Reaching People And Shortage Of Funding. (2015, August 19). Retrieved from
  18. 18.0 18.1 UN High Commissioner for Refugees. (2018, March 6). Yemen UNHCR Update, March 2018 - Yemen. Retrieved from
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