Grocery stores running out of flour as public hoards basic goods

Published on 6 April 2015 in Report
Khalid Al-Karimi (author)

Khalid Al-Karimi

Residents in Sana’a have spent days trying to find flour in the capital city. Stocking up on basic goods has resulted in shortages in the market. (Archive photo by Ali Ibrahim Al-Moshki)

Residents in Sana’a have spent days trying to find flour in the capital city. Stocking up on basic goods has resulted in shortages in the market. (Archive photo by Ali Ibrahim Al-Moshki)

Saleh Ahmed, a 50 year-old taxi driver, went from supermarket to supermarket to find flour. When he did locate it, he found that the price of a 50 kilo sack of flour had shot up from YR 5500 ($25) to YR 6200 ($28) since the beginning of the Saudi-led coalition strikes in Yemen.

"Like others, I never imagined flour would be so difficult to find,” he said.

The increase of $3 per 50 kilos of flour may seem modest, but for the half of Yemenis who live on less than $2 a day, the rising cost of flour coincides with rising costs of fuel and the diminishing value of the riyal, which has gone from about 214 Yemeni Riyal per dollar to 220.  

Driving up prices is fear that the market will run out of such essentials as flour. Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, according to Salah Al-Maqtari, a professor of economics at Sana’a University. Coalition forces have imposed both an air and naval blockade, leaving residents with the means to do so to stock up on food and basic supplies.

Food insecurity is a chronic problem, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), with half of Yemenis suffering from food insecurity. Humanitarian organizations warn that the latest conflict risks exacerbating what is already a dire humanitarian situation.

“Importation has stopped in Yemen. The air and naval routes are now under the control of the coalition forces,” Al-Maqtari said. “Not only will this have tremendous consequences for Yemen’s economy, but it makes people fearful, encouraging them to hoard food.”

The Chamber of Commerce issued a statement last week seeking to reassure the population about the food supply. According to the commerce, there is enough food in the market for the coming six months in all governorates. The statement did little reassure the public.

Al-Maqtari seemed skeptical of the commerce’s claim. “The purpose of the statement was likely to reassure the public,” he said. He added that it was possible that there was a reserve of food that he did not know about. Coalition forces have acknowledged the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. On April 4, the spokesperson for Operation Decisive Storm, Ahmed Asiri, said the Saudi-led coalition has formed a coordinating committee to evacuate foreign nationals and provide aid.

On Saturday, April 4, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued a statement calling for a humanitarian ceasefire.

"All air, land and sea routes must be opened without delay for at least 24 hours to enable help to reach people cut off after more than a week of intense airstrikes and fierce ground fighting nationwide," the ICRC said in a statement.

On April 5, the Saudi-led coalition agreed to the ICRC’s call to allow supplies and aid workers to Yemen.

"We have received permission from the coalition for two planes now, one carrying supplies and one with staff," ICRC spokeswoman Sitara Jabeen told Reuters on Sunday, hoping that that the two planes could arrive on Monday in the capital Sana'a.

For Ahmed, it took two days of searching before finding a sack of flour. “I only bought one sack, unlike many others who are storing food to prepare for the war,” Ahmed said.

Ali Mohsen, a local resident of the Shumaila neighborhood of Sana’a, said he also spent days looking for flour.

“I searched for two days and found nothing. On the third day, I found a half sack of flour in a supermarket. It was the last one,” Mohsen said.

Dhaif Allah Abdullah, an employee at the Al-Sadaqa grocery store in Sana’a, said that fear was disrupting the market, with some customers buying upwards of 20 sacks of flour at a time.

“On the second day of Decisive Storm, we had 300 sacks of flour. We sold them all,” he said.

Abdulrahman Ali, a resident in the Hadda neighborhood of the capital, said his family has about 15 sacks of wheat as well as two sacks of white flour in storage. “Now we feel secure. This amount of wheat will last us a long time,” Ali said.  

Al-Maqtari said the responsible course of action is to buy only what one needs, and to resist the urge to stock up on food. Doing so disturbs the market, drives up prices, and hits the most vulnerable hardest.

“In such a situation, everyone is thinking about themselves and their families. The citizens feel the absence of the state, and this is a natural reaction,” he said, but a harmful one.