The Yemeni civil war is referred to as “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time,” by the United Nations. The war began in March 2015 and has been ongoing for three years. The conflict is between the Houthi rebels, a minority Shia group from the north of Yemen, allegedly backed by Iran, and a Saudi-led coalition which supports the internationally recognized Yemeni government. The capital Sana’a and Aden, the second largest city, are under siege by the Houthis, as well as most of the northern territory.
The cities’ ports are controlled by the Saudi-led military who have placed restrictions on food, fuel and medical imports entering the country. Continued fighting has made it unsafe for organizations to distribute much-needed supplies. According to the United Nations, 76% of the population (22 million people) requires humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs. A combination of these factors has led to impending famine which has put 8 million people on the brink of starvation; this is approximately one-third of Yemen’s population.
It is estimated that 3 million people have been displaced and more than 10,000 have been killed in combat. However, the International Rescue Committee claims that more civilians have died from lack of healthcare, starvation due to food insecurity and diseases, such as cholera, rather than fighting itself. Children are particularly vulnerable. According to the United Nations Secretary-General, nearly half of all children aged between six months and five years old are chronically malnourished and it is estimated that 130 children in Yemen die every day from starvation and diseases.
Yemen’s government and the Saudi-led coalition continue to invest more funds in the war than providing life-saving aid. Both sides, including the Houthis, are complicit in utilizing food as a weapon of war. The food shortage is primarily a result of a blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia in November 2017. The Saudi-led military made the decision to block access to airports, seaports and land crossings in Yemen. The blockade enacted by Saudi forces originally intended to prevent Iranian weapons from entering Yemen’s ports to supply Houthi rebels. Consequently, it has cut food supplies, medicine and fuel from entering the country; this has led to aid restrictions.
The blockade has disrupted humanitarian access, which means aid groups struggle to fulfill the basic needs of displaced people. Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children’s Yemen Country Director, says that “Save the Children currently has five shipping containers full of life-saving food for sick and malnourished children stuck in Aden because of road closures. Our staff cannot reach communities to provide life-saving care and much-needed supplies and relief workers cannot enter the country. Essential medicines, fuel and food stocks could start running out in a matter of weeks. It’s utterly unacceptable to let children die of neglect and a lack of political will.”
Funding is required by international donors and governments for the UN Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan. It must be flexible and responsive to people’s short and long-term needs. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recently pledged $930 million in aid funds. However, Saudi Arabia has been accused of spending more money on weapons that continue to fuel the war and the concurrent food shortage.
The UN calls for unimpeded aid delivery and humanitarian access. To prevent imminent famine the blockade needs to be lifted permanently by Saudi Arabia in order to remove systematic import restrictions and facilitate the entry of food. There are no viable alternatives to the ports for receiving life-saving supplies. Saudi Arabia has pressured aid groups to leave areas of Yemen controlled by rebels, saying that aid workers’ lives are at risk. Both parties need to respect the right to humanitarian assistance to ensure equitable distribution of aid. The UN also calls for an immediate cease-fire between the Saudi forces and the Houthi rebels, as well as peace talks to resolve the conflict. The reconciliation between the two parties should involve the participation of communities and marginalized people such as women and youth.