Millions of Yemenis face starvation as a result of the war. The Saudi-led coalition has blockaded Yemeni ports and airfields and systematically targeted food and rural livelihoods. The siege and toll on civilian water, sanitation, health and energy infrastructure have led to the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded by the World Health Organization—over 1 million cases. Numerous strikes by coalition aircraft have killed innocent bystanders, many of whom were attending schools and shopping in markets. In August 2018, more than 51 civilians were killed, at least 40 of them young children, when a bomb hit a school bus. Yet as devastating as these strikes have been, more deadly to the Yemeni people overall are the coalition strikes targeting farms, fishing boats, food storage sites and transportation networks, which worsen the conditions that give rise to famine. While parts of Yemen faced chronic food shortages before the war, the numbers of malnourished and starving people have sharply increased, with UN agencies repeatedly warning of an imminent man-made famine.
Under international humanitarian law, the deliberate targeting of food as an object essential to civilian life is prohibited, as codified in Article 54 of the Geneva Conventions. The May 24, 2018 UN Security Council Resolution 2417 on the protection of civilians in wartime specifically reiterated this principle: “Using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare may constitute a war crime.” The Security Council resolution noted that after several decades during which rates of global hunger had been declining, the past two years have seen the number of malnourished and starving people increasing. Neither the Security Council nor its member states have taken substantive action to constrain the use of aerial bombardment in this war. The United States is complicit in the Saudi aerial bombardments of Yemen. Saudi pilots trained by Americans fly American aircraft and drop American bombs, while American technicians service and keep the planes in the air. American contractors also upgrade the classified software on the planes, including the targeting software. Saudi Arabia would be unable to launch air assaults on Yemen without American support and cooperation.
Martha Mundy, who taught anthropology at the London School of Economics, works on family, law and agrarian relations in the Arab world. She has extensive field experience in rural northern Yemen, where she lived from 1973–1977 and made a number of subsequent research trips. Since Spring 2016, Mundy has documented the targeting and destruction of rural Yemen and its agricultural sector in a series of articles and an October 2018 report by the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. She uses data from Yemeni sources covering 2015 to 2018 to analyze attacks on civilian targets, particularly the targeting of the food system through attacks on farms, rural markets, agricultural land, water and transport infrastructure, agricultural extension offices and fishing boats and fishermen. These data allow Mundy to disaggregate attacks on rural livelihoods and agriculture by province and over time.
Jeannie Sowers teaches political science and international affairs at the University of New Hampshire and is a former member of MERIP’s editorial committee. She corresponded with Mundy via email in early February 2019, the results of which have been edited and condensed.
What do you mean when you say in your World Peace Foundation report that “to target agriculture in Yemen requires a certain precision”?
About 65 percent of Yemenis live in rural areas, and over half of the population relies on animal husbandry and farming for their livelihoods, in whole or in part. Targeting the agricultural sector in areas held by the Sanaa government has thus caused major internal displacement and hunger. An International Labour Organization survey of labor markets seven months into the war found that two-thirds of those displaced came from rural areas, leading to a significant decline in the agricultural workforce.
Less than 3 percent of Yemen’s land surface was classified as arable by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 2015, yet the Ministry of Agriculture data shows that farms and cultivated land were targeted in some 180 separate incidents and animal and poultry farms in more than 75 other incidents during the first 18 months of the war. The Ministry of Fishing Wealth reports that by the end of 2017, every fish off-loading port had been targeted, 220 fishing boats had been destroyed and 146 named fishermen had been killed. These attacks require precision targeting and serve to undermine rural livelihoods, disrupt local food production and displace populations. The targeting of the Yemeni agriculture sector and rural livelihoods is thus not merely a form of collateral damage incurred as an accidental or incidental result of targeting military objects.
Indeed, one need not bomb agriculture to harm it gravely. The war creates cascading effects on food security, particularly in the region of the Tihama plain, long a “grain basket” of Yemen. A study from the Flood-Based Livelihoods Network and the Water and Environment Center in Sanaa looked at the impact on agriculture in two major wadis (Zabid and Siham) from March 2015 to June 2017. The report found that in both areas over that two-year period, crop-area cultivation declined an average of 39 percent and crop yields by 42 percent. Farmers in these areas reported that they could no longer produce at pre-war levels due to the extensive damage to water infrastructure, high prices for diesel fuel and other agricultural inputs, collapse in markets for renting land and the destruction of roads, markets and storage facilities.
As I wrote in the report, “if you consider the damage to the resources of food producers (farmers, herders, and fishers) alongside the targeting of food processing, storage and transport in urban areas and the wider economic war, there is strong evidence that coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution in the areas under the control of Sanaa.”
Your report also draws attention to policies of the Saudi-led coalition that cause even more starvation than the aerial bombing of rural infrastructure. What are some of the most important measures that have contributed to starvation in Houthi-held areas of Yemen?
Closure of the airport in Sanaa, seizure by forces linked to the coalition of the oil-producing regions, the repeated blockade and later assault on the main port of Hodeidah and Saudi-imposed delays on UN-verified ships have sharply curtailed economic activity and flows of humanitarian aid to Houthi-held areas. More importantly, however, was moving the central bank, which had continued to pay salaries to government employees across the lines, in late September 2016 from Sanaa to Aden. Thereafter, the bank ceased payment to all civil servants in Houthi-held areas, including teachers and medical personnel. As the state is the largest employer in Yemen, many people lost their income and hence the ability to buy food. It is impossible to relocate a central bank without support from the international banking system and the major powers, so we are brought back to the support that the United States, Great Britain and France have offered Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the economic war. Lastly, from late summer 2018, the bank brought in huge amounts of Yemeni rials—printed by a private Russian company and allegedly delivered to the office of the prime minister in Aden, not even to the bank—sending the value of the rial crashing further. Skyrocketing prices have put food out of reach of the poor.
How is it that the United States and UN Security Council have backed one side in the conflict? After all, large portions of the former national military and other allies of Ali Abdullah Salih, the former president of Yemen, as well as Salih himself, allied with the Houthi rebels to oppose the Saudi-backed government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
It is helpful to recall how from 2011, with massive popular protest mobilization and splits between and within the blocks of the ruling elite, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the permanent members of the UN Security Council were deeply involved in attempting to manage internal Yemeni politics (see UNSC Resolution 2014 of October 2011). They supported the one-candidate presidential election of Salih’s former vice-president, Hadi, in late February 2012. Hadi was to steer a transitional process of two years during which time a new constitution was to be written and general elections held to replace the parliament elected in 2003. But in February 2014, when the constitution had not been agreed upon and elections had not been held, the major political parties—without the agreement of the southern separatist movements or the Houthi Ansar Allah movement—agreed with international powers to extend Hadi’s term for one additional year.
This attempt to manage the transition entailed tensions, given the marginal place accorded the Houthi and the southern separatist movements in the national dialogue and the privileging of the major political parties over the more progressive voices of the popular uprising of 2011. Hadi also unilaterally announced just before the end of his second year in power a division of the country into six regions, which would have severely damaged the interests of both the Houthis in the North and separatists in the South.
At the same time, Hadi faced significant pressure to continue to implement Washington-consensus neoliberal reforms at a difficult political and economic time. He imposed fuel-price increases when fuel was already in short supply, which led the Houthis to enter Sanaa manu militari but with hardly a shot fired, as army units went over to the popular insurrection. The UN Special Envoy then drew up a document signed by all the political forces (including Hadi) called the National Peace and Partnership agreement, which was recognized by the Security Council in Resolution 2201 as the political road map as late as mid-February 2015. That resolution paid lip-service to the agreement, but when the GCC, Western powers and the World Bank began to close their operations in Sanaa, they signaled a disregard of the agreement in their clear preparations for hostilities. After the coalition began air strikes on Houthi targets on March 25, 2015, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, resigned under pressure, noting that resolution to the conflict could only come through agreement between Yemeni actors. Although Yemen was not given much attention by the Western corporate news agencies, Western and Gulf powers were nevertheless very much involved from the early stages.
The tragedy in Yemen has parallels with other besieged areas, such as Gaza. In both cases, the international community has either stood by or actively supported policies blocking trade and supplies. Aerial bombardments from states with US-supplied air forces destroy civilian infrastructure with impunity. The United States is a major player in both cases, supporting Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s role in Yemen on the one hand, and Israel and Egypt’s economic war on Gaza, on the other. What are some of the differences that you see?
One difference is the availability of information. In Gaza, the Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups provide documentation of civilian impacts, as do reports by the water and sanitation utilities. Although it is hard to avoid the sense that Gaza represents a kind of laboratory for the economic and ecological war that we see deployed today against Yemen, the Gaza Strip remains by comparison a very small area. In Yemen, the specialized international consortia for damage assessment ceased work early in the war. Technologies such as satellite imagery have been underutilized to provide in-depth damage assessments outside of a few urban areas, while rural areas are largely invisible in the media landscape.
There has also been less public awareness of Yemen over the decades, whereas Palestine has been the world’s most internationalized conflict since the 1947 UN Partition Plan. In 1947, Yemen’s South was still under British rule and its North under an isolationist imamic state that had successfully resisted Western colonialism. In the 1960s, both North and South Yemen moved to republican regimes (exceptional for the Arabian Peninsula). Until the assassination of the North’s President Ibrahim al-Hamdi in 1977, the North retained a certain margin to negotiate with Western powers and Saudi Arabia. Economically, North Yemen slowly became integrated with the Gulf oil economies and their models of elite consumption. From 1970 onwards, mass male Yemeni labor migration abandoned fields for construction jobs in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. From the late 1980s, as Yemen began to produce oil, the northern regime adopted Gulf models of elite enrichment and investment in financial paradises. And from the 1990s, President Salih—at first in alliance with the Islamist Islah party (which included the Muslim Brotherhood, tribal leaders including the Ahmar clan and Salafi militants)—built a security state and surrendered economic and development policy to the Washington-led institutions. When these foreign-controlled institutions closed down their support for Yemeni ministries in 2015, those ministries were ill-prepared for the task of documenting the subsequent war.
Your book Domestic Government: Kinship, Community and Polity in North Yemen (1995) is based on fieldwork in Yemen conducted between 1973 and 1977 in Wadi Dahr, in North Yemen. You focus on the workings of domestic government—the hierarchies and relations that extend from the amalgamations of households rather than categories such as tribal areas versus cities that have dominated accounts of Yemeni politics. Your work shows how little we know about local-level impacts on agriculture and food in this economic war. How does your work as an anthropologist of rural Yemen inform your work today, when it is so difficult for anyone to gain access to these areas? How does thinking about households help us understand the many impacts of the food war on Yemeni civilians?
The worsening conditions for field research and data collection have led me to work with agronomists to document changes in the Yemeni food-production system and to support Yemeni researchers as best I can to do basic documentation in these terrible times. Over the years, I have been keenly aware of the weaknesses and difficulties in university-based knowledge production in Yemen. Such a dearth of knowledge production cannot be replaced by yet another international agency or NGO short-term research survey. My earlier work also has taught me a great respect for earlier traditions of farming and land husbandry, whose destruction appears one of the aims of this war.
Do you think any of the parties responsible for creating starvation in Yemen will ever be held responsible?
Alex DeWaal, who writes extensively on humanitarian issues, has called for Yemen to be a test case for prosecuting (a new) crime of starvation—always a transitive verb. A number of lawyers are trying to explore routes to bring their national governments to account for their support of the coalition in the war. But the limits of international justice are painfully obvious when a senior judge on the International Criminal Court resigns in the face of US threats.
Yemen is a strong case for such an attempt since the role of the coalition and its supporters is legally far clearer and compelling than that of internal state or sub-state actors inflicting local sieges, notably in Syria or Sudan. It is in the interest of Western activists to end the impunity for such massive crime.
Yet let us not forget the longer history of responsibility in Yemen’s tragedy. The capacity of Yemen to feed itself has been destroyed not only in this war but over the last 50 years. The integration of the country (first North Yemen and then all of Yemen after the 1990 unification) into the wider regional oil economy transformed its elites into conduits for finance capital and its workers from skilled cultivators to substitutable labor. On the model of pro-natalist neighboring oil states, family planning, women’s rights and employment were marginalized. For those 50 years, it has been the iron law of Western development policy that while Western governments may subsidize basic food production and agriculture at home, no government in the Global South may do so. This practice led to the destruction of traditions of social cooperation, farming knowledge, seeds, terraces, animal species and ecological balances of highland and lowland agriculture. The resulting erasure of family farming is incomplete, one reason for Yemen’s resistance to the ferocious destruction wrought by this war. But beyond a legal response to the present holocaust, nothing less than a revolution in the valuation of Yemen’s land and ecology is required to restore the country to its people.
 Declan Walsh and Eric Schmitt, “Arms Sales to Saudis Leave American Fingerprints on Yemen’s Carnage,” The New York Times, December 25, 2018.
 Martha Mundy, Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial Bombardment and Food War, World Peace Foundation of Tufts University, October 9, 2018. See https://sites.tufts.edu/wpf/strategies-of-the-coalition-in-the-yemen-war/
 Data sources include the Yemen Data Project, a database compiled by Yemeni activists and journalists tracking individual airstrikes and type of target hit; the Ministry of Agriculture on targeting of agriculture and related facilities; and the Ministry of Fish Wealth on the targeting of artisanal fishing and facilities along the Red Sea.
 See Ammar Mohammed Al-Fareh, The impact of the war in Yemen on artisanal fishing of the Red Sea, LSE Middle East Centre Report, 2018.
 International Labour Organization, “Yemen Damage and Needs Assessment,” January 2016.
 Flood-Based Livelihoods Network Foundation, Food Production, Irrigation, Marketing and Agricultural Coping Mechanisms, December 2017.
 Tobias Thiel, “Yemen’s Imposed Federal Boundaries,” Middle East Report Online, July 20, 2015.
 Alex de Waal, “Mohamed bin Salman Should Be Prosecuted over the Yemen Conflict,” The Guardian, December 4, 2018.
 The Guardian, “John Bolton Threatens War Crimes Court with Sanctions in Virulent Attack,” September 10, 2018.