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Yemen's farmers forced to eat leaves as war devastates harvests

In the Hajjah governorate, residents have been struggling to make ends meet since the beginning of the war
Abdullah Wesabi stopped farming in 2015 because of the increase in fuel prices due to the war and left to look for work in Saudi Arabia (MEE)
By MEE correspondent in Hajjah, Yemen

Khalid Abdullah, a 33-year-old resident of Yemen's Hajjah governorate, used to work on the farms he had inherited from his father.

He would plant tomatoes, onion, potatoes, corns, and other kinds of vegetables and grains, and never thought he would find himself unemployed and reliant on help from others.

But anything is possible when your country is enveloped in conflict, and the outbreak of Yemen's civil war in 2015 turned the lives of farmers in Abdullah's part of the world upside down.

Hajjah is a rural governorate, 127km from the capital Sanaa in Houthi-controlled territory.

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Houthi rebels have been mired in a war with government forces, who have been backed since 2015 by a Saudi-led coalition.

"I used to provide for my family from farming, but in 2015 the prices of fuel more than doubled and I could not buy fuel for the water pump, so my lands became barren," Abdullah told Middle East Eye.

"I did my best to bring water by jerrycans to water the farms, but that did not help, and I lost my only source of income because of the expensive fuel."

The price of 20 litres of diesel increased from YR2,500 ($10) to more than YR12,000 ($48) in 2015, and although it has now decreased to YR7,500 ($30), the price remains unaffordable. 

Abdullah used to send the harvest from his farms to different parts of the country, but now his area is in dire need of food.

"The harvest from my farms used to ship to several governorates, and I did not need anyone to help, but today everything has changed."

Khalid Abdullah, left, shows the leaves of the Halas plant which are boiled for eating (MEE)
Khalid Abdullah, left, shows the leaves of the Halas plant which are boiled for eating (MEE)

Food prices have jumped by 150 percent since the conflict began, leaving as many as 20 million Yemenis food insecure. 

In the absence of the harvest, or help from the Houthi administration, international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have stepped in to try to help the situation.

"We have been waiting for organisations to help us with some food that enables us to survive. Not only me, but most of the farmers face the same suffering," said Abdullah. “Organisations are now the main source of income and they help many people in Hajjah, but there is still a shortage of aid and not all needy people get food.

"Some families, including mine, usually resort to eating Halas leaves, so I call on INGOs to double their efforts in Hajjah."

Halas is a climbing plant, with shiny, leathery-looking leaves. 

Yemenis used to eat the leaves in ancient times when famine spread in the country, and now some families in rural areas like Hajjah are again resorting to boiling the leaves to eat them.

Public servants no longer paid

Along with those who relied on agriculture, residents of Hajjah who once received public servant salaries are also reliant on aid.

"The government has been absent from Hajjah since August 2016, when we received our last salary and today we depend on INGOs to help us with food,” Gamal, a teacher in Hajjah, told MEE.

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"If not for the INGOs, we would starve to death. Some children already have in Hajjah."

According to UNICEF, 1.8 million children are acutely malnourished in Yemen, including 400,000 who are suffering from "severe malnutrition and urgently need life-saving food to survive". 

Gamal said that the current crisis has left most of the residents in Hajjah and other governorates unemployed despite being still young and in their prime.

"I call on the INGOs to continue to provide us with enough food until we receive our salaries and the farmers resume their works," he said.

Fleeing from the needy

In October, Houthi authorities in Sanaa formed the National Authority for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Response.

The authority consists of representatives from 12 ministries and works under the leadership of the office manager of the presidency.

The authority supervises and organises the work of the INGOs in Houthi-controlled areas and provides INGOs with figures about the affected people and the hardest hit areas.

Abdul Rahman al-Muayyad, a supervisor for the authority in Hajjah, told MEE: "There are some desperate people in Hajjah who do not have any source of income and the aid that arrives to some districts is not enough for all the needy people, so they resort to eating Halas.

"INGOs are the main source of income and no one can deny their role in helping Yemenis, but we hope to receive more aid from them to cover all needs."

Muayyad confided that sometimes he flees from needy people because he feels sad when people asked him for help them which he is unable to provide.

'I achieved my dream'

Abdullah al-Wesabi is a 35-year-old farmer from al-Anasi village in Hajjah's Bani Qais district.

Wesabi plants different kinds of vegetables, such as tomatoes, onion, radishes, watercress and grains. 

He has been working on his farm since he was a child, and he never thought that one day those lands would become barren.

 With help from an INGO, Wesabi has now been able to resume farming and the income from the farm covers the needs of his family (MEE)
With help from an INGO, Wesabi has now been able to resume farming and the income from the farm covers the needs of his family (MEE)

As with many other farmers, Wesabi stopped farming in 2015 because of the increase in fuel prices and left to look for work in Saudi Arabia. He lasted there for only a few months before returning to Yemen, where fortunately the situation turned in his favour.

"Last year, Vision Hope International (VHI) organisation supported us with seeds, rehabilitated the well, built a water storage tank, provided us with a pump and solar energy and also provided us with water network," he said.

The water arrives to several farms in the area, including Wesabi's. He has now been able to resume farming, and the income from the farm covers his family's needs.

"The VHI achieved my dream, and today we receive water for free so many farms are working again today," Wesabi said.

'We hope to see agriculture in Hajjah return'

VHI is one of the INGOs that have started to support the farmers, based on the premise that helping them earn a decent living for themselves and their families is better than simply providing them with food.

I hope to resume my farming so I can help needy people instead of waiting for the INGOs to help me

Khalid Abdullah, farmer

Kamel Salah, the head of the community committees in al-Anasi village, said the main problem is with the water and seeds.

"Most of the residents of this area are farmers, but they could not buy fuel for water pumps, so the intervention of the organisations has helped them to resume their jobs in farming," Salah told MEE.

"Some INGOs have started to help farmers, and we hope to see the agriculture in Hajjah return as it was before the crisis."

Abdullah, also a farmer, believes that INGOs are the only ones that can help him nowadays.

"To help us with the rehabilitation of a well and provide us with a pump or solar energy is better than helping us with food," he said.

"I hope to resume my farming so I can help needy people instead of waiting for the INGOs to help me."

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