Since March, nearly 25,000 people a day have slipped into hunger in Yemen, and every second person – or nearly 13 million people – is now struggling to find enough to eat, according to Oxfam.
Conflict, air strikes and a naval blockade have killed thousands in the country, and reduced people to begging and polishing shoes in rubble-filled cities where water, food and medicines are scarce and disease is a growing threat, aid workers say.
New details of the depth of the humanitarian crisis were released after the Saudi-led coalition, which is fighting Shia Houthi rebels, announced a five-day ceasefire, which started on 26 July, to allow in relief.
But already by 27 July, the ceasefire seemed in danger of collapsing. Reuters quoted residents and Saudi media as saying Iranian-backed Houthi militia had continued fighting across the country. Two previous humanitarian pauses have failed to take hold fully.
Oxfam said on 28 July that 6.5 million people are on the brink of starvation. This marks an increase of 2.3 million since March when the Saudi-led coalition, which has the backing of the US and UK, started air strikes and a de facto naval blockade of the country’s ports.
Over the past four months, Yemeni civilians have paid a horrendous price with nearly 1,700 people killed and more than 3,800 injured. On 24 July, at least 120 people were killed when air strikes hit a residential area in the town of Mokha on the Red Sea coast.
The UN children’s agency says at least 365 children have been killed since late March, and regional director Peter Salama said the conflict had compounded the misery of children living in the poorest country in the region, with millions also facing increased risk of contracting diseases like measles, malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia.
“As tragic as the deaths and injuries among children are, the indirect impact of the violence may result in far more deaths among children in the long term, and could affect an entire generation,” Salama said on Sunday after a three-day visit to Yemen.
Oxfam said that since March, only 20% of domestic food needs had entered Yemen, and an extra 650,000 children and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers have become malnourished, bringing the total number to 1.5 million. Yemen usually imports around 90% of its food needs, and even before the fighting escalated, it had one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world.
Interviews with displaced families in Sana’a found that 60% of those questioned said that they cope with the lack of food and cash by begging, polishing shoes and hoping for charity, Oxfam said.
“Since the start of the conflict, every day that goes by without a ceasefire and full resumption of imports sees nearly 25,000 additional people going hungry in Yemen,” said Philippe Clerc, Oxfam’s country director.
“The US, UK and Iran should use their influence over warring parties to bring about an end to the conflict. Should the world continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering of over 21 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, it is tantamount to complicity in their suffering,” he said.
Houthi rebels seized the capital, Sana’a, in September and pushed south and east in March and April. In early July, the UN declared Yemen a level-3 humanitarian emergency, the highest on its scale, warning that nearly half the country’s regions were facing a food crisis.
Jonathan Bartolozzi, director of programmes for Mercy Corps, said it would take decades to rebuild after this “tragic” destruction.
“Certainly the physical growth and development that was done before has been destroyed, and that will take years, if not decades, to rebuild. Certain parts of the country have been decimated – cities, bridges, infrastructure,” said Bartolozzi.
He saw some hope in the enduring spirit of volunteerism among youths who had participated in Mercy Corps’ projects, but warned the trauma meant many people would need psychosocial support.
“To think that this has gone on for not one month, not two months, not three months, we are at four months now. What does that mean for a person?” said Bartolozzi.
The UN has appealed for $1.6bn for Yemen but so far it has received only 15% of the funds. Bartolozzi said the declaration of a level-3 emergency had galvanised some donors, and said the arrival of a World Food Programme (WFP) ship in Aden last week was a positive development.
WFP said the ship – the first one chartered by WFP to berth at the port since March – carried 3,000 metric tons of food, enough to feed 180,000 people for one month. More WFP-chartered ships are on standby near Aden.
Mercy Corps has started cleaning campaigns to try to combat and prevent dengue, cholera and other diseases in cities. It is also delivering food baskets to displaced people and others, reaching more than 30,000 people this month. Bartolozzi stressed that development work must restart as soon as possible to deal with chronic underlying problems.
“We cannot simply be making sure that everyone has food on the table today and that it is flowing into the country, but we need to be making sure that the farmers are planting and are cultivating their crops,” he said. The harvest in September will give an idea of how badly production has been affected by the conflict, and especially by the scarcity of water in one of the world’s driest countries.