Already poor, Yemen taking an economic beating from unrest

McClatchy NewspapersJune 14, 2011 

SANAA, Yemen — Even before demonstrators began demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh five months ago, Yemen's future looked bleak.

A third of its people couldn't be certain when they'd next eat. The oilfields that provide 70 percent of government revenues and more than 30 percent of the country's economic activity were expected to go dry in 10 years. Experts even were betting that Sanaa would be the first world capital to run out of water.

But now, with Saleh lying wounded in a hospital in Saudi Arabia after an assassination attempt, the political system paralyzed by armed conflict and disagreements about what should happen to his government, and economic activity grinding to a halt, the future may be now.

"While it may not be plainly visible yet, I would say that Yemen is on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe," said Geert Cappelaere, the Yemen representative for UNICEF, the United Nations children's aid agency.

Throughout the country, Yemen's infrastructure has buckled under the months of conflict. Oil supply lines have been disrupted since March, following an attack on Yemen's main oil pipeline suspected to be the work of anti-government tribesmen. Across the country, prices of basics like food, water and gasoline have increased exponentially, placing further strain on the already struggling poor. Electricity has gone from unreliable to nearly nonexistent. Fearing further outbreaks of violence, many city dwellers have fled to the countryside, stretching the already meager supplies and services in those areas.

Sanaa appears to be nearing a breaking point, its streets wearing evidence of the growing crisis. Lines for gasoline stretch for miles, forcing motorists to wait for hours to gas up. Many restaurants and stores have shuttered their doors. Thousands flock into the remaining grocery stores to stock up on non-perishable foods. At night, the once vibrant city sits dark, with light emanating only from government buildings and the homes and businesses of the few lucky enough to own generators.

As the struggle to make ends meet grows ever more difficult, frustration has given way to resignation.

"I feel like I'm living in a circle," said Ahmed Mukhtar, a cab driver in Sanaa, "I need to have gas to drive my taxi to make money to feed my family, but I can't feed my family and have enough money to pay for gas. It's never been easy here, but at least before, thank God, we could manage. Now, what can we do?"

While nearly all Yemenis have suffered the effects of the growing unrest, the situation has been compounded for those closest to the violence, many of whom have been forced to flee their homes. Despite a ceasefire following fighting between government forces and dissident tribesmen in the capital's Hassaba district, hundreds remain displaced.

In the troubled southern province of Abyan, much of population has fled in the wake of ongoing clashes between the Yemen army and forces described as Islamic extremists. According to U.N. estimates, 95 percent of the population of the city of Zinjibar, a center of the fighting, has been displaced, with nearly 15,000 having taken refuge in public buildings in the nearby cities of Aden and Lahj.

Violence continues to block the delivery of humanitarian aid to Abyan, where the consumption of unsafe drinking water reportedly has led to a cholera outbreak. Ongoing efforts to negotiate a humanitarian ceasefire have yet to succeed.

Despite the severity of the current situation, however, fears remain fixed on the future. With no end to the political crisis in sight, the worst may be yet to come. Even if a political solution is reached, Yemen's other problems are far from over, the past months' unrest having pushed an already dire situation to the edge.

"There may be reason to be hopeful from a political standpoint," Cappelaere said, "but from a humanitarian standpoint, there is no short-term solution."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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