RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The global food crisis has hit hard in one Middle Eastern country. Yemen sits at the bottom of Saudi Arabia's peninsula facing Africa across a thin channel of water. It's one of the poorest countries in the world, and it's being hit hard by severe droughts and depleted water supplies. The government is already struggling to deal with political unrest and now some Yemenis are calling the food situation a potential time bomb. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
PETER KENYON: Just west of the capital, Sana'a, the terrain grows rugged as you climb the Haraz Mountains, home to the highest peak in the Middle East - more than 12,000 feet above sea level. Normally in the spring, the magnificent terraced hillsides here would be lushly dressed in shades of green, covered with fruit orchards, coffee bushes and the ubiquitous khat trees, whose mildly stimulating leaves are chewed by Yemenis for hours on end. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Middle East's highest peak is actually Mt. Damavand in Iran.]
But this year, except for a few lightly irrigated patches, the view is mostly a hazy brown, spotted with a few blackened areas - the charred remains of controlled burns that indicate another farmer has given up for this season.
(Soundbite of sheep)
KENYON: A small herd of sheep sniffs amount the dust-covered bushes for something to eat, watched over by a 65-year-old woman in an orange scarf and a bright fuchsia dress. Perhaps counterintuitively, in Yemen it's the urban women who tend to wear the niqaab - the full black Muslim covering that leaves only the eyes visible. In the countryside, many women still wear the more colorful traditional clothes and leave their faces uncovered.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: This shepherdess is also not shy about speaking her mind, readily interrupting her son as she talks about the drought and what it's doing to the way of life here. She says in the past month five of the 25 sheep she tends have died.
Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) It's hard, very hard this year. There's no rain, and the plants that the sheep eat are dry. The sheep are dying, the plants are dying. There's nothing else to do. We wait for the rain. That's what we always do.
(Soundbite of water running)
KENYON: Once a month the government pumps water up from below to fill the water tanks in the village of Hajjarah, one of the most dramatically situated towns in Yemen. It's perched atop a rocky cliff, accessible only by footpath. Hajjarah was once home to a good number of Yemen's historically large Jewish population. Most Yemeni Jews have since relocated to Israel or elsewhere. But their work lives on among a dwindling number of silversmiths, who still make traditional Yemeni jewelry.
Sixty-eight-year-old Abdullah Hussein Khalil has been the local authority in Hajjarah for some 40 years, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him. He wears typical Yemeni male attire - white desert robes with a ceremonial dagger in the front of his belt topped with a Western-style sport coat. His eyes sparkle as he offers strong spiced coffee and sweet tea to a visitor. But he grows somber when the conversation turns to Yemen's three biggest shortages - food, water and tourists.
Sheikh ABDULLAH HUSSEIN KHALIL: (Through translator) This year, with no rain, nothing's growing - the coffee, the corn, the wheat, the khat - nothing. A couple of years ago we might get as many as 150 tourists in a day, sometimes twice that. But now it's only a few and some days none at all.
KENYON: The World Bank has described Yemen as the single largest development challenge in the Middle East. And that was before the recent weather related problems. As in many poor corners of the world, Yemenis are finding the cost of staple foods rising and their ability to pay for them sorely tested. There have yet to be riots over food shortages, as in Haiti or Egypt, but officials say the warning signs are growing.
One Yemeni cabinet minister says the government's ability to deal with the crisis is limited. This is a very dangerous time, he says, adding that he hopes the U.S. and other developed countries will realize that economic strife can lead to radicalization.
Yemen's per capita share of developmental assistance is well below the global average, despite its severe poverty. Analysts say this is partly the government's own fault for failing to enact political reforms upon which some aid is conditioned - notably the Bush administration's Millennium Challenge Grant. Other aid has been suspended or delayed over the Bush administration's anger at Yemen's freeing of convicted terrorists, including one of the men involved in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors at the port of Aden.
Former Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul Kareem al-Eryani, who at age 73 has been described as one of the architects of modern Yemen, usually takes a sunny view of Yemen's potential. But at the moment, when he looks at the drought, rising food prices, the reluctance of foreign donors and growing political unrest, he sees trouble ahead for his country.
Prime Minister ABDUL KAREEM AL-ERYANI (Former Prime Minister, Yemen): I'm very pessimistic, frankly, for the next two to three years. Nature and man are squeezing Yemen, and I think this alarm bell should ring in various corners around us and in the United States as well.
KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Sana'a.