As one of the most food-insecure countries in the world, civil war-torn Yemen has been particularly affected by the decrease of wheat supplies due to war in Ukraine. Importing 45 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, for Yemen Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 meant a ‘perfect storm’. A strategic stock of wheat of the devastated state was about to run out when Kyiv signed an export deal with the UN and Turkey in July 2022 within a framework of the ‘Grain Initiative’. Ever since the unblocking of Ukraine’s seaborne exports the issue of global food security interdependence has left the radar of the public. However, the huge consequences the invasion of the major ‘breadbasket’ had on the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) dependent on it, foremost Yemen, cannot be underestimated.
Food security interdependence
While the MENA region remains the world’s largest grain importer, Yemen imports 90% of its staple food, of which bulk wheat makes up an average of 57% of all food imports monthly. At the same time Yemen, with its population estimated as 34.3 million remains one of the most insecure states in the world. According to estimates by the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) more than 17.4 million Yemenis suffer from food insecurity, with an additional 1.6 million expected to fall into “emergency levels of hunger” in the foreseeable future (European Commission Yemen Factsheet 2023).
Before the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, wheat from both countries made up to 45% of all imported wheat to Yemen in 2021. Since March 2022, the share of Ukrainian wheat has decreased from 19% to 7% compared to 2020/21. Looking for alternatives, Yemen turned to substitutes such as India, Australia, and the US. Because of rising international wheat prices and shipping expenses the financial situation worsened, forcing Yemen to pay 80-100% of the costs in advance to foreign wheat suppliers. At first the option with India seemed the most efficient alternative (Free on Board Freights (FOB) cost 350 USD/T within 15 days delivery comparing to 403 USD/T within 39 days with Australia and 388 USD/T within 46 days respectively with the US) (ACAPS 2022). However, when India banned wheat exports in May 2022 its output fell and domestic prices surged. Later, the latter announced having taken steps to address food security in Yemen by prioritizing wheat exports.
Decline of humanitarian aid
War in Ukraine hits Yemen at a time of unprecedented humanitarian needs (i.e. climate shocks, civil war, COVID-19, hunger). Even essential services have largely collapsed, and humanitarian aid has also begun to dry up while certain aid organizations have been forced to reduce or stop providing food and other supplies. The war in Ukraine has inevitably pushed several MENA countries down the priority list for state and non-state donors. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), ten out of twelve MENA countries, including Yemen, have experienced a decline of humanitarian funding. At the same time, the cost of staple foods increased in all MENA nations, with Yemen suffering from an 50-75% increase (IFRC report 2022).
Response by mitigating actors
The situation began to change for the better when Ukraine, Turkey, and the UN signed the “Initiative for safe transportation of grain and food products from Ukrainian ports” on July 22, 2022. The so-called Grain Initiative allowed for the export of grain and oil, as well as their products. A mirror agreement was also signed by Turkey and the UN with Russia. Only in one month, the number of ships leaving Ukrainian ports reached 100, and exports amounted to more than 2 million tons of grains and oilseeds (Ukrainian Grain Association 2023). The wheat export geography included Turkey, Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Yemen, Somalia, and Djibouti. Moreover, only a few months before that, in May 2022, the EU launched so-called solidarity lanes to arrange the land-based food distribution network to substitute for the loss of the maritime channels. Although export levels remained lower than in previous years, it helped to slow the price growth in general.
Source: European Council 2023
However, as of March 25, 2023, there were only seven outbound voyages executed to Yemen, with a total volume of 235,618 metric tons (Black Sea Grain Initiative Joint Coordination Centre 2023). According to the official announcement, the government of Sweden supported the implementation of the Grain Initiative by funding the delivery of 50.000 metric tons of wheat to Yemen via the World Food Programme (WFP). Concurrently, despite the cut in funding for the MENA region, net funding for Yemen remains the highest among the region countries per the WFP response plan for the year 2023 (WFP Global Operational Response Plan 2023).
Conclusion and recommendations
The recent crisis demonstrates the crucial role Western countries and multilateral bodies have in the MENA region in terms of food trade and diplomacy. Against this backdrop, food security in Yemen and beyond depends on two issues. First, in the short run the multilateral food-trading system needs to be maintained regardless of the war in Ukraine and its geopolitical implications. Export restrictions such as experienced in the global food crisis of 2007/2008 need to be urgently prevented. In this regard, initiatives such as the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) need to be strengthened to foster market transparency and reliability. Established at the request of the Group of Twenty (G20) in 2011, AMIS is an inter-agency platform bringing together the main producing and consuming countries of major food crops such as wheat, maize, rice, and soybeans. It collects and builds market and policy data in the attempt to better inform decisionmakers of excessive food price volatility during periods of heightened insecurity in international food markets (AMIS 2023). Second, long-term food security can only be safeguarded by resilience strategies. Therefore, donors would have to substantially increase their efforts to establish regionally adaptive agricultural production strategies for MENA countries such as Yemen that offer protection from unexpected supply disruptions (e.g. investing in rural livelihoods).
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Olena Osypenkova, is a visiting Ukrainian PhD student at the Institute for Social Sciences at Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf, Germany, previously employed by the Diplomatic Mission of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Ukraine.
Witold Mucha, is an interim professor for Political Economy at the Institute for Social Sciences at Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf, Germany.