Humanitarian needs climb alongside death toll in Yemen

Conflict in Yemen has led to severe water, fuel and medical shortages, leaving civilians vulnerable to outbreaks of disease and struggling to find food

Aid agencies have called for an urgent political solution to the fighting in Yemen as the United Nations on Friday appealed for $1.6bn to avert a spiralling humanitarian crisis in the Arab world’s poorest country.

Yemen has buckled under the impact of a blockade imposed by a Saudi-led coalition, which launched air strikes in March in a campaign to halt Houthi fighters and restore the government in exile.

The conflict has led to severe water, fuel and medical shortages, leaving civilians vulnerable to outbreaks of disease and struggling to find food.

“Over 21 million people or 80 per cent of the population are now estimated to be in need of some form of humanitarian aid and or protection,” UN spokesman Jens Laerke told a news briefing.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed an outbreak of dengue fever in the country, with more than 3,000 recorded cases between March and June.

The UN estimates 1 million Yemenis have been displaced in the country since the conflict escalated in March.

“Because of the lack of fuel, people cannot pump [fresh] water. So they have diarrhoea, and diseases spread in no time,” said Hassan Boucenine, head of mission in Yemen for humanitarian NGO, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Access into and within Yemen is severely restricted, Boucenine told Philanthropy Age, leaving pharmacy and hospital shelves bare.

“[People] simply cannot access their medicines, so they will die from very basic infections,” he said. “Imagine a country without medicine. Even those who can afford to pay cannot find treatment for [illnesses such as] diabetes or heart problems. Basically there is no availability.”

Access for emergency medical care is also limited. Hospitals around the country have closed because of shortages of staff and fuel, while the air strikes and ground war in some areas, such as the southern city of Aden, mean patients daren’t risk the journey to seek help.

“The city, Aden, is basically a continuous battlefield,” added Boucenine. He called on both sides to lift commercial restrictions on basic supplies of food, fuel and medicine and to agree access for aid agencies.

MSF has treated more than 1,900 war-wounded since mid-March from Amran, Ad-Dhale, Taiz and Hajjah governorates. The emergency relief organisation has more than 500 Yemeni staff and around 40 international staff in the country. One MSF driver has been killed since the conflict started.

In a statement on Wednesday, the World Food Programme said at least 6 million Yemenis are in urgent need of emergency food and lifesaving assistance. Ten of the country’s 22 governorates are classified as facing ‘emergency’ levels of food insecurity, with access to staple foods severely restricted by the upheaval.

“With the fluidity of the situation and until a political solution is in place, we will continue to see an increase in the number of people struggling to feed themselves and their families and further deterioration in food security across Yemen,” said Purnima Kashyap, director, WFP Yemen.

More and more children are also being drawn into – and killed by – the war, warned the UN children’s agency, UNICEF. Four times as many Yemeni children have died as a result of conflict in the past 10 weeks than in the whole of 2014, revealed a UN report on children and armed conflict. At least 279 children have been killed since 26 March, compared to 74 last year.

“The recruitment and use of children has also sharply increased. Children in Yemen are being used by armed groups, manning check-points or carrying arms,” said Julien Harneis, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen. “They should be safely learning in school, not trying to escape bullets on the frontlines. These children are the future of Yemen and they must be protected.”

Houthi fighters took control of Sana’a last year, driving President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government first to Aden, and then into exile in Saudi Arabia. An Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, intervened militarily in March but air strikes have yet to reverse significant Houthi territorial gains.

UN-brokered peace talks began in Geneva on 15 June, aimed at bringing warring factions together to secure a ceasefire, agree a troop withdrawal plan and allow aid deliveries.

In May, a five-day pause in the bombardment allowed agencies to disburse aid to 1.7 million people. More than 2,580 people have died as a result of the conflict and some 11,065 are injured, according to WHO figures. UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, last week urged the parties to agree a humanitarian pause in time for the holy month of Ramadan. “While the parties bicker, Yemen burns,” he said.    

Photo credit: MSF/ Benoit Finck