A conflict with no visible hope of resolution and world indifference threaten to make an already disastrous humanitarian situation in Yemen even worse.
Hunger and cholera are spreading fast in the Arab world’s poorest country, but the US government seems more focused on checking Iran in the ravaged nation’s Shi’ite-Sunni struggle than in the plight of the civilian population.
“The Yemeni people have been lost in the shuffle,” said Barak Barfi, a Middle East specialist at the New America Foundation in Washington.
“Not many people are talking about their tragedy and what needs to be done to alleviate their suffering.”
The numbers tell a disturbing story of deterioration since the fighting started in 2015.
“After more than two years of conflict and destruction, more than 20 million people are now in need of some form of humanitarian aid,” Stephen Anderson, Yemen country director for the World Food Program, said in an email interview with The Jerusalem Post.
“Yemen is on the brink of famine with over 17 million people – two-thirds of the country’s population – not knowing where their next meal is coming from.”
Things have gotten worse since.
The World Health Organization announced on Tuesday that on Sunday the total number of suspected cholera cases in Yemen hit the half million mark, making it the largest current cholera epidemic in the world.
Almost 2,000 people have died since the waterborne disease began to spread rapidly at the end of April.
The epidemic is fueled by the war.
According to a WHO press release, “It has spread rapidly due to deteriorating health and sanitation conditions and disruptions to the water supply. Millions are cut off from clean water, and waste collection has ceased in major cities. A collapsing health system is struggling to cope, with more than half of all health facilities closed due to damage, destruction or lack of funds.”
The WHO said there was a “persistent and widespread” shortage in medicine and supplies, and that 30,000 critical health workers had not been paid in almost a year.
“Yemen’s health workers are operating in impossible conditions,” said WHO general-director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Thousands of people are sick, but there are not enough hospitals, medicines and not enough clean water. These doctors and nurses are the backbone of the health response. Without them, we can do nothing. They must be paid their wages so they can continue to save lives.”
The cholera outbreak is compounding the effects of the food crisis, according to Anderson.
“Malnourished children are at least substantially reduced immune systems,” he wrote.
The war pits Iranian-backed Shi’ite Houthi rebels who control the capital of Sanaa and are allied with the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Salih, against forces loyal to ousted president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia is leading a US-supported military intervention aimed at reinstalling Hadi and repelling the Houthis but has not been able to gain a clear upper hand despite a devastating bombing campaign.
At least 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting, mostly civilians.
Anderson termed the food crisis a “man-made” emergency.
“While WFP aims to fulfill its mandate of providing food assistance to the extremely hungry in Yemen, in some locations where armed conflict is actively occurring access at times can be highly restricted,” he wrote.
Saudi aerial bombardments in Houthi-controlled areas and other Saudi policies have taken a heavy toll on food availability and distribution, analysts say.
“Saudi policies have certainly contributed to the near famine conditions in Yemen,” Katherine Zimmerman, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in an email interview. “Air strikes have destroyed bridges and roads, making ground distribution difficult, and constraints on the entry of assistance have limited what is available.”
She added, however, that poor conditions also persist in the areas where the Saudi-led coalition is operating. “Yemen’s population was weak before the war and the stresses alone have further weakened the people.”
In Zimmerman’s view, the Houthis also are to blame for the horrific humanitarian conditions.
“Aid is politicized and access restricted. Medicine Sans Frontieres withdrew from hospitals in northern Yemen-critical sites-because of Houthi policies hindering doctors’ work,” she noted.
Barfi said the cholera outbreak is fueled by Saudi bombing of infrastructure necessary for clean water and sanitation, and that bombing made roads unsafe for food distribution. But he, too, does not absolve the Houthis, saying they want to be in control of every aspect of government in their areas.
“They oversee a lot of the aid and they put bureaucratic steps in the way that slow it down to a certain extent. It compounds an already difficult situation,” he said.
Tensions around the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, the point of entry for around 70% of World Food Program commodities and relief supplies, are also a grave concern, according to Anderson.
In March and April, the Saudi- led coalition and the troops backing Hadi threatened to open an offensive to capture Hodeidah on the grounds that it was being used by the Houthis to smuggle weapons.
“If Hodeidah port were to be closed it could tip already vulnerable populations living in northern parts of the country into a full-fledged famine,” Anderson said.
The aid workers and analysts are in agreement that a political solution that ends the fighting is the best way to alleviate the humanitarian disaster.
“We urge the Yemeni authorities and all those in the region and elsewhere who can play a role to find a political solution to the conflict,” said Ghebreyesus.
“The people of Yemen cannot bear it much longer. They need real peace to rebuild their lives and country.”
But that is not in the offing, according to Barfi.
Governments, he said, view Yemen through two prisms.
One of those is the need to combat al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is active in parts of the country. The other prism is the Sunni-Shi’ite battle and the perceived need to contain Iran, he said. Humanitarian imperatives don’t really factor in at present.
“Western governments are more likely to back the Saudi- led coalition. They want to pressure the Iranians, they don’t want Iran to win another country in the region,” he said.
What is really needed, in Barfi’s view, is to bring the Saudis to the negotiating table under UN supervision with a cease-fire so the Houthis will join talks.
Through these negotiations, an attempt should be made to reach a division of power between the Houthis and the Hadi government in order to have a unified cabinet that can deal with Yemen’s problems, he said.
With US President Donald Trump forging ever closer relations with the Saudis, however, it is highly unlikely Washington would press Riyadh to halt the bombing campaign.
“The Saudis have money to continue an open-ended conflict. Without facing any repercussions in the international community for the humanitarian crisis and collateral damage they’ll continue. I don’t see any end in sight especially with the Trump administration opening up the military warehouses to the Saudis,” Barfi said.