Humanitarian catastrophe as Yemen war rages
LONDON - The United Nations has sounded the highest alarm in warning that millions of Yemenis are on the verge of outright starvation with no sign of a lull in the raging internal conflict to allow much-needed assistance to be delivered.
In a country that imports 90% of its foodstuffs, a humanitarian ceasefire has become vital for the survival of the majority of Yemen’s population of 25.5 million.
The situation is described by international aid agencies as the “gloomiest ever”. More than four months of non-stop fighting between government forces and Shia Houthi rebels backed by troops loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in addition to Saudi-led air strikes against Iranian-backed Houthis, has left the country in ruins and isolated from vital humanitarian assistance.
“The situation is very desperate. Our last assessment has shown that close to half the population is food insecure, which means that families do not know where their next meal will come from,” UN World Food Programme (WFP) spokeswoman Abeer Etefa said.
The United Nations declared a Level 3 humanitarian emergency in Yemen on July 2nd amid estimates that more than 21.1 million Yemenis — 80% of the population — require some form of humanitarian protection or assistance.
According to UN figures, 12.9 million Yemenis struggle to access sufficient food, while 20.4 million people lack access to safe water or adequate sanitation and 15.2 million are without health care.
At least 6.1 million are said to be suffering from “severe” food insecurity. “Those can be classified as Stage 4 in the emergency level of [food] insecurity, which is just one step away from starvation stage,” Etefa warned.
Most distressful of all, Yemen already had one of the highest rates of malnutrition with more than 850,000 children under the age of 5 underfed. This figure is expected to sharply rise.
“The lack of adequate food and water is also a major factor prompting many Yemenis to become internally displaced or leave the country altogether,” according to Andreas Needham, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “The situation is desperate everywhere in the country. There are about a million internally displaced people and a quarter of a million of refugees. The needs are massive and this is putting stress and strain on the entire system,” Needham said.
Aid groups are keen for a humanitarian ceasefire, which they hope could occur over Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
“Any opportunity of a ceasefire or a pause in the fighting is certainly welcome and needed to ease movement restrictions on humanitarian aid workers. There are many areas in Yemen where fighting has been raging heavily and it is simply too difficult to get into these areas now,” Etefa said. UN agencies have sought to move humanitarian aid via Yemeni ports but many aid ships have been turned away due to lack of security.
“It is absolutely imperative that we have access to people so we can provide them with assistance. We have seven ships, waiting off the coast of Yemen, loaded with some 10,000 tons of food aid,” Etefa said.
“We appeal to all the parties on the ground to allow aid workers and humanitarian assistance to reach all of the people in dire need without discrimination.”
The questions remain as to whether Eid al-Fitr will bring relief to the beleaguered population of Yemen and will the international community succeed in exacting a desperately needed humanitarian truce.