Yemen’s Cholera Outbreak Shines A Light On A Country on The Brink Of Disaster

In the midst of a bloody civil war, Yemen now also faces the “world’s worst cholera outbreak,” according to the United Nations. The disease threatens a country that already faces a massive humanitarian crisis caused in large part by years of instability, poverty, and conflict. Overshadowed by the war in Syria, Yemen is often forgotten by the international community despite its dire state that has left almost 80% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance.

Once home of the legendary Queen of Sheba, Yemen’s recent history has been anything but smooth. After the unification of the communist south and the north’s Arab republic in 1990 under northern president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country has struggled to stay afloat. With few natural resources and measly oil reserves, Yemen became—and continues to be—one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. During the Arab Spring of 2011, president Saleh, a corrupt authoritarian leader who is said to have stolen up to $60 billion while his country lived in destitution, was forced to step down. Power was handed over to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi who is currently the internationally-recognized president of Yemen. Unfortunately, Saleh’s disposal has not brought prosperity to the country, and citizen’s disappointment in their new government has fueled the fire of civil war.

The Houthis, a Shiite-led religious-political group, took advantage of the country’s disillusionment, and, strengthened by many ordinary Yemenis—including Sunnis—upset with their new leader, entered the capital of Sanaa in September 2014. This began a civil war that has left over 10,000 dead, 45,000 injured, and has displaced over 11% of the country’s population. In 2015, mostly Sunni Saudi Arabia began air strikes to the capital in an attempt to defeat the Houthis, who they believed to be supported by Shia power Iran. Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war has made it a proxy fight for the larger battle between Sunnis and Shiites in the middle east. Though Saudi-backed government forces have been able to take back certain cities and strongholds from the Houthis, including Adan where Mr. Hadi currently resides, the capital Sanaa and its surrounding province remains under rebel control and the country is no closer to peace or unity. In addition to this chaos, jihadist militants from both Al-Qaeda, as well as their rival the Islamic State, have seized territory in the south of the country, prompting the United States to launch controversial drone and airstrikes in the region.

In the midst of these many conflicts, Yemen has become home to what Oxfam declares the worst humanitarian situation on the globe. The country is constantly being pushed closer to famine, with over half its population considered food insecure, and over 14 million said to be severely food insecure. The crumbling infrastructure, healthcare, and sanitation systems have left 14.5 million people without access to clean drinking water, and currently half a million children under the age of five suffer from severe acute malnutrition..

It is under these already urgent circumstances that a cholera outbreak has taken hold of the country; more than 1,300 people have died from the disease—a quarter of them children—and over 218,000 cases have been recorded. The outbreak is concentrated mostly in Sanaa and the surrounding province. One of the biggest obstacles in fighting cholera is a lack of staff and supplies. Those available to staff the hospitals that haven’t been totally destroyed are working around the clock, and  most have not been paid in months. Ismail Mansouri, a physician in Yemen, explains, “we are facing many obstacles. We lack medical equipment, rehydration solutions and medicine”. While both the rebel and internationally-backed government and its allies have pledged to fight the crisis, their fighting is also to blame for it. According to a statement put out by UNICEF and WHO, “this deadly cholera outbreak is the direct consequence of two years of heavy conflict”.

Many humanitarian organizations have pledged to increase and intensify their efforts against cholera in Yemen. Oxfam, for example has already flown 39 tons of clean water and sanitation supplies to Yemen.  WHO is seeking to set up treatment centers and oral rehydration posts where staff will be able to catch cholera cases before they become severe. Those set up thus far have provided promising results; daily fatality rates and reported cases have both decreased in areas with posts. Fortunately, as both sides recognize the potential disaster the disease could create, trucks carrying supplies have not encountered difficulties or been denied access. As stated by WHO’s senior emergency advisor for Yemen, “so far, whenever we needed road permits, we got [them], from both sides”. Despite their willingness to work with aid organizations, both sides seem unwilling to work with each other, even as the country they are fighting over crumbles.

Though the international community has pledged over $1 billion in aid to Yemen, that is only half of what is necessary to fully tackle the crisis in Yemen before the cholera outbreak; donations continue to fall short, and Yemeni civilians continue to suffer. Recently, Saudi Arabia gave $66.7 million to fight cholera in Yemen. While a very kind gift, Saudi Arabia has also been accused of repeatedly bombing hospitals in the capital and stopping aid shipments from groups like Save the Children. The country  and its international backers have also been “blockading the country, they’ve been stopping food and other supplies [from] getting into Yemen’s ports,” says Richard Stanforth of Oxfam.

Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia is not the only country whose humanitarian donations carry a sick irony; while the U.S. and U.K. have given $450 million to aid, they have also made $5 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. The United States’ covert drone strikes have also likely killed hundreds of civilians—far more than the government reports admit—in addition to destroying vast amounts of property. The United States, despite appearing to be a prominent force in helping the country, is actually a big player in its destruction. If peace in Yemen is to become a reality, America’s involvement in the country—both direct and indirect—will need to change, if not abate.

To really help Yemen, a country on life-support, Saudi Arabia would need reopen ports and agree to the ceasefire that Oxfam called for in the wake of this new crisis. In addition to pledging at least another $1 billion to humanitarian aid for the country, the international community needs to cease weapon sales to the country and instead take a serious look at the alleged war crimes committed in Yemen. While the cholera outbreak must be dealt with, so too must the impending famine and constant conflict aided by international players with ulterior motives and little regard to Yemeni lives. As one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, Yemen’s civilian population is especially vulnerable to the consequences of war, an unexpected one of which was cholera. Simply having humanitarian organizations increase aid to help those affected by cholera is a Band-Aid solution to a problem that needs intensive surgery.

Despite its tragic consequences, the cholera outbreak has also given Yemen a unique opportunity; they have the international community’s attention and sympathy. In the warring world we currently reside in, conflict and famine are sadly nothing new—but a cholera epidemic that especially affects children is. It has brought attention to a conflict often called the “forgotten war” and such coverage will hopefully result in more money for humanitarian aid, increased scrutiny of the conflict and its accompanying humanitarian catastrophe, and eventually, perhaps peace talks, which have been unsuccessful in the past. In addition, this cholera outbreak appears to be something the Houthi rebels and Mr. Hadi’s government can agree on—it is terrible, and it must be stopped. The situation offers a rare opportunity for cooperation that could give millions of Yemenis facing imminent death a small glimmer of hope.