Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Access to basic services is a life and death struggle for Yemen’s consumers

CI’s Sonia Ramachandran on the tough fight for consumer rights in Yemen

As the streaks of dawn light the morning sky, 10-year-old Mohamed stirs in his bed as pangs of hunger strike his small body, due to yet another night without food. His throat feeling like sawdust, he takes a sip from the nearest bottle, already half-empty. Longing to gulp the water down in one go, he knows that luxury is beyond him. For if he does, he will go without water the rest of the day.
Water has become a highly priced commodity for Mohamed's family and for most families in Yemen. Although water is available in the city, it is a necessity only available for the very rich. The Yemen Association for Consumer Protection, a member of Consumers International, says those in the private sector have wells which supply water through tanks mounted on vehicles – a privilege only the very rich can afford. For the poor, it is a different story. Their water is sourced from mosques or through the generosity of philanthropists.

For families like Mohamed's, getting water means carrying water on their backs or on donkeys for distances of up to two kilometres.

Things are even more difficult for Mohamed as his father, Saif, is unemployed. Saif is among many workers who have been laid off from the construction sector as construction work has drawn to a halt. Thirty-five per cent of Yemen's population is now jobless. Factories have laid off workers. Most workshops, laboratories and small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs) have all closed down, adding on to the unemployment problem. With no employment, there is no money and with no money, there is no food.

The cost of main food commodities has risen by 46% since January 2011. Bread costs 50% more in Sana’a than it did six months ago while water prices have risen between three and sevenfold.

A third of Yemen's population now sleep without dinner. Without work and an income, many are finding it increasingly difficult to feed their families in this war-torn state.

With prices soaring, counterfeit, smuggled and expired food and medicine are flooding the market. Tens of thousands are already unable to buy food because of the current crisis.

The Yemen Association for Consumer Protection says 60 per cent live below the poverty line. Yemen is the poorest Arab nation and has one of the world’s highest malnutrition rates. A nutrition study in the Abyan governorate in Southern Yemen found a Global Acute Malnutrition rate among 18.6 per cent of children. The emergency threshold number is considered 15 per cent.  With the security situation in the country deteriorating and food prices skyrocketing, the future does not bode well for children here.

Electricity for families like Mohamed's seem a thing of the past, with power off for 22 hours at a time.
Shops, hospitals and homes that can afford them use generators for electricity while the rest are shrouded in darkness. Television, lights and cooking gas have now been replaced by candles, firewood and oil lamps in most Yemen homes. With no electricity, refrigerators can't work. With no refrigerators, food cannot be kept for long.

An article in the Yemen Times states that a Ministry of Electricity and Power report cited repeated attacks on power stations to be the reason for the power disruptions with at least 64 attacks on different power stations between April and October 2011. Yet with this limited power supply of merely a couple of hours a day, consumers are receiving exorbitant bills of up USD90 a month.

Consumers have also had to cut down on cooking meals due to the increasing price of gas canisters. The price of a canister has increased from YR 900 (USD 4) at the start of the year to YR 2,500 (USD 10) today.

Yemen is also running out of its small deposits of oil. Sales of oil finance 90% of its imports of staple foods. In a country that imports most of its food, importers are now struggling to get letters of credit, with suppliers demanding upfront payments in full.

People have been camping on the streets of the capital demanding a better life. This has been the situation since the uprising to bring down Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime began in February, and the situation has been rapidly deteriorating. Although Saleh recently transferred most of his power to Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, he will remain president until an election scheduled for February 2012.

The unrest in Yemen has cost the nation more than USD8 billlion.
Yemeni civil society organisations are calling for a comprehensive approach to the country's current challenges. The Yemen Association for Consumer Protection has asked their neighbouring consumer groups to stand by them in their hour of need and to ensure that the Yemeni people are provided with at least the basic necessities of food, water and electricity.

Fadhl Mansour, the Association's chairman, said they had appealed to the Prime Minister, the vice-president and the relevant ministries and heads of departments to address their concerns but to no avail. The Association had also requested a meeting of the Supreme Committee for Consumer Protection,  the body encompassing all relevant bodies of consumer protection, but no meetings have yet been held. Mansour said they had also used the media to request help from the government but failed to elicit any response.

 “The situation here is very difficult. We had contacted all the ministries including those involved in the enforcement of food control and electricity. We have asked our government to respond to our needs and to protect consumers as per the laws of the country but the government has failed to respond to our cries for help. We have no choice but to seek help beyond our borders,” said Mansour.

However, change may be on the horizon for Yemen. The official Saba news agency reported that the new national unity Yemen government sworn in in December last year pledged their priority would be to end violence and restore basic services to the country. The report stated that the cabinet discussed plans to end shortages of water, electricity, cooking gas and fuel during its first meeting. It added that Prime Minister Mohamed Salem Basindwah will seek support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to end the country’s shortages when he visits the countries.

Reports have also suggested Saudi Arabia will supply Yemen with urgently needed goods, including whatever oil products it requires.

The United Nations World Food Programme has also allocated $213 million towards providing food aid for Yemenis in 2012.

Mansour said that although the fighting had stopped, the situation in the country was still the same with no services available for consumers. He said they had already written to the national unity government asking them to address urgent consumers issues including the price of food and medicine, price and supply of electricity, counterfeit drugs and the urgent need for the establishment of a regulating body for food and drugs in the country.

Consumers International has already contacted its members in the Middle East, highlighting the situation in Yemen and asking them to consider joining CI in expressing solidarity with Yemen’s fledgling consumer movement.


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  2. Sonia, thanks for this excelent, impressive and moving article. I'll translate it for the CI blog in Spanish.