In Depth

Yemen famine: will food aid resolve humanitarian crisis?

In Depth: a three-week Saudi blockade has been lifted but war-torn nation faces a bigger problem

A UN ship carrying 5,500 tons of flour docked in Yemen’s rebel-held Hodeida port on Sunday, the first food aid to arrive in almost three weeks.

Some 25,000 tons of wheat was also unloaded in Yemen yesterday, while 1.9 million doses of vaccines have been delivered to Sana’a International Airport - offering “a crucial influx for a country ravaged by more than 900,000 suspected cases of cholera”, says the National Public Radio website.

The partial easing of a three-week blockade by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition will not avert the unfolding crisis, however. Unicef warned yesterday that more than 11 million Yemeni children – almost every boy and girl in the war-torn country – are in “acute” need of humanitarian assistance.

Saudi Arabia originally claimed that the blockade was aimed at halting Iranian arms shipments to Yemen’s Houthi rebel forces, and that it was implemented after Saudi Arabia intercepted an “alleged Houthi missile launched towards its capital, Riyadh”.

But Yemen’s civil war - and what some allege to be “war crimes” - have been ongoing for more than two years, descending into what the Financial Times describes as a new “circle of hell” after Riyadh committed the Saudi air force to defeating Houthi rebels in March 2015.

“The renewed use of starvation as a weapon of war is threatening millions of lives in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. The situation in Yemen is the most catastrophic,” the FT says.

About seven million Yemenis are now on the brink of famine, according to aid agencies.

Origins of the civil war

The roots of Yemen’s war can be traced back to the “Arab Spring” of 2011, during which pro-democracy protesters took to the streets to force then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh to end his 33-year rule, says Deutsche Welle.

When his powers were transferred to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, under an internationally brokered deal, Saleh enlisted the help of rebels belonging to the Shia-led movement known as the Houthis, and retook control of the capital, Sana’a, in 2014.

Saudi Arabia intervened in March 2015 to back the deposed Yemeni government, escalating the power struggle into a major conflict.

Since then, more than 8,600 people have been killed and a further 49,000 injured, many in air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, the BBC says. The death toll of civilians alone has reached 13,920, according to figures recorded in September by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The civilians casualties

Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest nation. According to UN figures, half of the population lives on less than $2 (£1.50) a day, with no access to clean water and proper sanitation.

The poverty-stricken country relies on maritime imports for more than 80% of its annual staple food supply, reports ReliefWeb, so any sort of disruption to imports has dramatic knock-on effects for civilians.

Even before this month’s blockade, there were reports of Saudi forces discouraging ships from docking and of Houthi rebels redirecting aid. “This crisis is happening because food and supplies can’t get into the country,” Save the Children’s Mark Kaye told The Guardian in March.

The disaster has been compounded by bombing from the Saudi-led coalition, targeting Houthi rebels but often killing civilians in a campaign described by the BBC as “indiscriminate”.

Following the bombing of a funeral in Sana that left at least 140 civilians dead in 2016, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called for “an international, independent investigative body to look into extremely serious alleged violations of international law, including possible war crimes”, by the Saudi-led coalition.

The Houthis have also been accused of war crimes, and Western nations have come under fire for funding the Saudi intervention.

Amnesty International claims that the US, UK, France, Spain, Canada and Turkey sent a total of almost $5.9bn (£4.44bn) worth of arms to Saudi Arabia between 2015 and 2016, including drones, bombs, torpedoes, rockets and missiles.

Will aid shipments make a difference?

Four cargo planes and two aid ships have delivered food and medical supplies so far this week.

But far more aid is needed to reverse the risk of famine in Yemen, Al Jazeera reports.

“This is not enough for the Yemeni people’s needs, but we hope this is a good sign to open the port of Hudeida and lift the siege in all Yemeni provinces,” a UN official told reporters at Hodeida port on Sunday, adding: “Much, much more is needed.”

Labour MP Fabian Hamilton, the shadow minister for peace and disarmament, told The Guardian that “innocent civilians, including children, are still at risk of starvation and malnutrition”.

Cholera is another urgent problem. Despite the 1.9 million vaccines delivered by Unicef this week, many thousands of children could die in what has been described as the largest and fastest-spreading outbreak of the disease in modern history. There are also reports of an outbreak of diphtheria.

Although much of the blame has been directed at the Saudi-led coalition, the US pushed back this week. The Chicago Tribune reports that “the White House is pressing to declassify intelligence allegedly linking Iran” to the intercepted missile that prompted Saudi’s decision to begin the latest blockade.

“The declassification push is part of a broader US bid to isolate Tehran in the UN Security Council, and potentially to provide a justification for enforcing sanctions or imposing new penalties against Tehran,” the newspaper says.


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