The facts: What you need to know about the crisis in Yemen


The crisis in Yemen, caused by prolonged conflict, has led to staggering impacts on human life, basic public services and the economy. More than 3.3 million people have been displaced and nearly 16 million are in desperate need of food.

Almost 100 civilians were killed or injured every week in 2018, and the toll on innocent families is only becoming more severe as a recent escalation in violence has led to increased displacement and death. People are struggling to survive, severe outbreaks of cholera and other communicable diseases are ongoing, and the risk of famine looms.

Millions of Yemeni people need our help. Today, more than 24 million people within the country are in need of humanitarian assistance, and the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for 2019 is less than a quarter funded.

This devastating humanitarian crisis has, for years, gone largely unnoticed. But the world can’t afford inaction any longer — too many lives are at risk.

Mercy Corps is there to connect communities with desperately needed resources, but our work is only possible with your knowledge and support. Learn more about the crisis and find out how you can help.

Yemen at a glance

Yemen is a country in Western Asia located on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. It’s bordered on two sides by water — the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden — and by Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the east. It is the poorest country in the Middle East, with a total population of 29.3 million.

What is happening in Yemen?

Since 2014, ongoing conflict between government and nongovernment forces has produced a severe humanitarian crisis. The clashes have destroyed public infrastructure and services, like hospitals and schools, blocked access to basic supplies and forced 3.3 million people from their homes. Over 24 million people — around 80 percent of the country’s population — are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, including food, water and medicine.

The violent conflicts in Yemen date back to long before the unification of former North and South Yemen. The countries joined together in 1990 to form the country we know today. Their unification, however, did not put a rest to the fighting and conflicts.

More than 25 years later, violence has continued in a clash for control of Yemen. On top of these government and nongovernment clashes, southern Yemen secession supporters also lead an insurgency against both of the other forces.

As violent outbreaks mount across the country, the most substantial byproduct of the violence is the escalating displacement of Yemeni citizens and one of the most severe food, water and medicine crises in the world.

How did the Yemen crisis start?

Abdullah checks on his daughter, who is lying in a hospital bed
Abdullah is a banana farmer and father of seven. We met him and his 7-year-old daughter Nehan in a cholera isolation unit where Nehan has just begun receiving treatment. The family also receives food baskets from Mercy Corps. ALL PHOTOS: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps

Yemen has been vulnerable for years. Even before the current conflict, around half the population lived below the poverty line, and the country faced chronic instability, weak governance, underdevelopment, unemployment and hunger.

In late 2014, as the country’s relatively new president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, struggled to remedy his country’s challenges, an armed group called the Houthis moved into the capital city, Sana’a, and took over government institutions. Hadi and other senior government officials fled Yemen after the takeover.

Shortly after, a coalition of a dozen states, led by Saudi Arabia, launched a military campaign to take back Houthi-held areas and restore power to Hadi’s government. The conflict has only heightened since then as each of the warring parties attempts to gain leverage, leading to widespread destruction, displacement and hunger for millions of innocent civilians.

What's happening in Hodeidah, Yemen?

Yemen is being torn in two by civil war and civilians are caught in the middle, struggling against three unimaginable nightmares: hunger, disease and economic collapse.

Last summer, offensives significantly escalated around the critical port city of Hodeidah, where about 80 percent of the country’s humanitarian aid and commercial imports run through. As a result of the flare-up, our team on the ground reported the number of people fleeing the violence increased five-fold and acute malnutrition doubled in just one month.

Hodeidah has since remained a hotbed of violence, with ongoing fighting constraining delivery of desperately-needed humanitarian supplies, trapping civilians on the front lines and forcing hundreds of thousands of others to run for their lives.

Across the country, millions from active conflict zones, like Hodeidah, have fled to rural areas of Yemen where they do not have any source of food or income. People forced from their homes by violence are without the basic necessities to survive both the terrible conditions and the spread of disease.

On December 13, following discussions on a range of issues at peace talks in Sweden, Yemen's warring parties announced they had agreed to a cease-fire.

The deal signed in December remained stalled for months afterward, fueling continued risk to families, humanitarian access and basic supplies. In May, parties to the conflict announced they would withdraw troops from in and around Hodeidah, in the first practical execution of the ceasefire, but renewed attacks were reported shortly afterward. It remains to be seen if the deal will be carried out.

According to UNICEF, more than 18 million people in Yemen are in need of water and sanitation services. Fatima and her grandson Mohammed, 4, used to have trouble getting clean water. Now they have better access at a new solar-powered water well installed by Mercy Corps.

Is there famine in Yemen?

The latest IPC Acute Food Insecurity Analysis, which measures food security in Yemen, stopped short of a formal declaration of famine but identified that a Level 4 hunger crisis, or "famine-like conditions" exist for about 5 million Yemenis — or approximately 17 percent of the country's population. For a famine to be declared, at least 20 percent of a region's population has to experience extreme food shortages, with significant numbers of deaths due to starvation. The report failed to find enough evidence to declare an actual famine in Yemen.

Nonetheless, Yemen has been on the brink of famine for years, and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network expects the threat to persist in 2019, particularly as conflict continues and humanitarian access remains threatened. Currently, the entire country is suffering some level of food insecurity and it is estimated that, in the absence of aid, 17 million people would plunge into crisis — or worse — levels of hunger.

How bad is the hunger crisis in Yemen?

Sahar holds her son Anwar, 1, who suffers from severe acute malnutrition and is getting treatment at a malnutrition screening center supported by Mercy Corps.

The situation is dire. Yemen imports 90 percent of its food supply but, because of the conflict, many of Yemen's sea ports have been closed, and goods can’t get in easily.

The food that is available is too expensive for families to purchase — the economy is in shambles and many people have lost their sources of income.

Many of the goods included in Mercy Corps' humanitarian food basket — including flour, canned beans, sugar and vegetable oil — have soared in price. For example, wheat flour is 80 to 100 percent more expensive than it was in 2015, before the crisis.

"With ... people teetering on the brink of famine, Yemen simply cannot afford any additional obstacles," says Su’ad Jarbawi, Middle East regional director for Mercy Corps. "Even a short period of reduced humanitarian access will have catastrophic consequences."

Last year, the United Nations identified Yemen as the world’s worst food crisis, and it is expected to remain one of the most severe in 2019. Access to food is so limited that nearly 16 million people don’t have enough to eat, and around 5 million are at risk of famine, meaning they could die of starvation.

In these conditions, children and pregnant and nursing mothers are particularly vulnerable. The World Food Program reports nearly 3 million children and new mothers are acutely malnourished. And according to UNICEF, only 15 percent of children are eating the minimum acceptable diet for survival, growth and development.

In what other ways have people been impacted?

A man and woman sit with several of their children inside an abandoned school they are using as a shelter
Entikhad, left, sits with several of her 4 children. She is pregnant with her fifth. Her family fled violence in Yemen and sought shelter in an abandoned school with more than 60 other families.

The obstruction of imports means other essentials, like fuel and medical supplies, are also severely limited and cannot be distributed.

More than 18 million people lack access to clean water and sanitation, because pumps and treatment facilities have been damaged, and there isn’t enough fuel to run the water system. This has exacerbated the risk of disease — already a state of emergency has been declared due to an unprecedented cholera epidemic that has surged through the country, at one point reaching an estimated 50,000 suspected cases every week.

Outbreaks of dengue fever, influenza and measles have also been reported this year. Yet, more than half of the country’s health facilities have been damaged or destroyed, and limited medicine imports are making it over the border.

Additionally, more than 70,000 civilians have reportedly been killed since January 2016, and much of Yemen’s critical infrastructure, like the power grid and communication towers, has been impaired or demolished. And the economy is on the verge of collapse. Many companies in Yemen have completely closed — including the central bank, which shuttered early last year over a shortage of funds — and millions of laborers have been laid off or forced away from their income sources.

The situation is so disastrous that, in 2017, the United Nations said a child under the age of 5 was dying every 10 minutes from preventable causes, including hunger, disease and violence. Conditions for families have only deteriorated since then.

How are people surviving in Yemen?

Put simply: families are suffering. More than 190,000 people have fled to other countries for safety, but millions more are displaced and living in crowded, derelict shelters or damaged homes inside Yemen.

And with few ways to meet their basic needs, families have told us they’ve resorted to reducing the number of meals they eat, limiting portion sizes and eating lower-quality food. FEWSNET classifies nearly the entire country as either in crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity, the phases right before famine when people start to employ these negative coping strategies — skipping meals, selling assets — just to survive.

How is Mercy Corps helping?

Mercy corps team members in yemen
These Mercy Corps community health volunteers walk from home to home in the northern hills of Yemen, helping mothers access malnutrition screenings and other assistance.

We’ve been helping people in Yemen meet their urgent needs and build better lives since 2010. And now, we’re focused on relieving the intense suffering of innocent people caught in the crossfire of this conflict.

We provide food vouchers to the most vulnerable people. We also distribute essential supplies like blankets, toothbrushes and soap. Since cholera is a water-borne illness, good hygiene is critical for stopping the transmission of infectious diseases like cholera.

We are also providing several cholera treatment centers with clean water, equipment and other much-needed medical supplies.

In response to the dramatic increase in child malnutrition, we’re treating malnourished children at mobile health clinics and health facilities. We're providing treatment for pregnant and nursing mothers at clinics, as well.

Additionally, we’re helping sesame farmers improve their yields and incomes, so they can better support their families.

A girl gets water from a solar-powered well
A young girl collects water at solar-powered water well. Cholera is spreading in Yemen as families don't have access to clean water that is safe to drink.

We’re working to rehabilitate water infrastructure, including water systems, dams and wells. We’re also improving access to water and sanitation in schools and health facilities, as well as providing nutrition and hygiene education so people can keep themselves as healthy as possible.

These rehabilitation projects also provide people with short-term employment, helping them to make money to feed their families.

This work happens in parts of Yemen that have been deeply impacted by the violence. Last year we reached more than 3.7 million people with assistance. We continue to work where we safely can, but operations have been severely hampered by ongoing clashes on the ground and airstrikes that both damage infrastructure and risk the lives of Mercy Corps’ staff and the people our teams are helping.

Help us provide even more support to Yemeni families and people in crisis around the world.