Analysts have long argued that, if left unchecked, Yemen’s political, economic and fiscal crises were all but certain to cause a massive, debilitating famine. As Yemen barrels toward this worst-case scenario, what is most disturbing is that there is no indication the trend will be stopped, even when people start dying in unprecedented numbers.
Almost four years into the country’s civil war, 22 million people in Yemen now require some sort of assistance. About 10,000 people contract cholera every week; there have been more than 1.2 million cases of the disease and more than 2,500 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Save the Children estimates that 85,000 children may have already died of hunger and preventable diseases since the civil war evolved from an internal power struggle into an internationalized conflict in early 2015.
Unless a planned assault on the Red Sea port of Hodeida is prevented and the war ended, says Mark Lowcock, the United Nations humanitarian chief, a “great big famine” will follow soon, and Yemen will endure what Lowcock believes will be the worst humanitarian disaster in our lifetime. Some 14 million people, more than the entire population of Pennsylvania, are living in pre-famine conditions, one economic shock away from starvation. A fight for Hodeidah would tip the worst humanitarian crisis in the world into the worst famine in a lifetime.
So it’s odd that the perception in Washington is that a recent burst of attention directed toward Yemen by Trump administration officials and lawmakers is some kind of breakthrough. Calls for peace talks unaccompanied by concrete action and debates on the Senate floor are likely to be too little, too late — if they amount to anything at all.
Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab world when protests broke out in 2011, inspired by revolts elsewhere in the region. There was plenty to protest about. Some 43 percent of its population lived on $2 a day or less. It was also dangerously dependent on its dwindling supply of oil. The unemployment rate was as high as 70 percent for Yemenis under 25, while service delivery was deteriorating along with the court system. But none of this was a priority for Yemen’s political elite or the international players with a presence in Sanaa.
in March 2015, Saudi Arabia, entered war , the coalition headed by the Saudis also blockaded Yemeni ports, leading to fears that the country would soon run out of food, fuel and medicine. The United Nations scrambled to assuage Saudi fears that weapons would be smuggled into Yemen on container ships, setting a pattern that would be repeated again and again: the international community finding itself in the role of firefighter, trying to limit the damage .
Protection of Hodeida
Now, Yemeni forces backed by the United Arab Emirates — the Saudis’ main partner in Yemen — are massing around Hodeida, a trade inlet that accounts for some 70 percent of all basics like fuel, food and medicine imported into Yemen. It’s the only source of supplies for about 10 million people. A battle for the port and city would probably be long, brutal and destructive. It would cut off trade for weeks or months, causing shortages and price spikes that would push food and clean water even further out of reach for millions of Yemenis.
Given the gravity of the situation, it is dispiriting to learn that the Trump administration, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has spent the past several weeks agitating against a British-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution on Yemen that, among other things, explicitly demands the protection of the Hodeida port. The U.S., Saudi and Emirati argument is that, if passed, the resolution would undermine U.N.-led consultations aimed at generating an agreement on confidence-building measures and working out a framework for formal negotiations due to start Thursday. The talks are, unquestionably, an important step in that direction, but if they do not prevent a battle for Hodeida, they will have been for naught.
The U.N. resolution was an opportunity for the international community to draw a line in the sand on the port.
When the famine comes, the United States will not be alone in its culpability. Yemen represents a long-term failure of the international system and the U.N. Security Council in particular. As the country slips into unimaginable, desperate hunger, it’s important to understand that what is happening was utterly, tragically predictable. The people who should have known knew. They just had other priorities.
Yemen facing largest famine the world has seen for decades, warns UN aid chief
Yemen will be gripped by famine – one the likes of which the world has not seen in years – if the blockade on basic supplies into the country imposed by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition is not lifted immediately, the top United Nations humanitarian official has warned.
“It will be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades,” Mark Lowcock, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the media late Wednesday, after briefing the Security Council.
Three years into a brutal conflict, Yemen depends on imports – amounting to up to 90 per cent of its daily needs – and millions in the country are being kept alive by humanitarian aid.
The fighting has also all but collapsed the country’s health, and water and sanitation systems. Combined with the lack of food, millions of lives – including those of children – will be lost as their bodies will simply not have the strength to fight off disease.
“What kills people in famine is infections […] because their bodies have consumed themselves, reducing totally the ability to fight off things which a healthy person can,” added Mr. Lowcock.
Underscoring that an immediate resumption of regular UN and relief organizations’ air services to the capital, Sana’a, and Aden are critical to save lives, Mr. Lowcock, also the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that a clear and immediate assurance is also urgently needed that those services will not be disrupted.
Furthermore, all vessels that have passed inspection by the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism should not be subjected to interference, delays to or blockages so that they can proceed to port as rapidly as possible, he added.
“This is really important because humanitarian access through the ports was inadequate even before the measures that were announced on 6 November,” said the senior UN official.
He also called for an immediate agreement to the prepositioning of the World Food Programme (WFP) – the UN’s emergency food relief agency – vessel in the waters off Aden, assurances that there will be no further disruption to the functions the vessel supports, as well as resumption of humanitarian and commercial access to all the seaports of Yemen.
At the stakeout, Mr. Lowcock, also underscored the Organization’s condemnation of the missile attack on the Saudi capital, Riyadh, over the weekend, terming it an outrageous act.
The coalition imposed the restrictions following the attack, effectively closing air, sea and land access to the war-torn country.
“The humanitarian situation in Yemen is extremely fragile and any disruption in the pipeline of critical supplies such as food, fuel and medicines has the potential to bring millions of people closer to starvation and death,” said humanitarian organizations, including the UN, working in Yemen in a joint statement Thursday.
“The continued closure of borders will only bring additional hardship and deprivation with deadly consequences to an entire population suffering from a conflict that it is not of their own making,” they added.
Calling for the immediate opening of all air and seaports to ensure the entry of food, fuel and medicines into the country, the humanitarian community ask the Saudi-led Coalition to facilitate unhindered access of aid workers to people in need, in compliance with international law, by ensuring the resumption of all humanitarian flights.
“We reiterate that humanitarian aid is not the solution to Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe. Only a peace process will halt the horrendous suffering of millions of innocent civilians,” they stressed.