Saudi blockade could kill thousands in Yemen famine: All about the crisis

The United Nations has warned the blockade by Saudi Arabia could spark largest famine the world has seen in decades.

world Updated: Nov 22, 2017 09:44 IST
Yemen famine,Yemen crisis,Yemen war
A malnourished boy lies on a bed at a malnutrition treatment centre in Sanaa, Yemen.(Reuters Photo)

The United Nations and international agencies have warned that thousands of Yemenis could die daily if the Saudi Arabia-led coalition does not lift its blockade on the war-ravaged country’s key ports.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said this week 2.5 million people in Yemen’s crowded cities had no access to clean water, raising the risk that a cholera epidemic will spread.

The United Nations has appealed for the blockade to be lifted, saying it could spark the largest famine the world has seen in decades. Some seven million people are already on the brink of famine.

The blockade

The Saudi-led coalition closed all air, land and sea access to Yemen on November 6 following the interception of a missile fired towards the Riyadh, saying it had to stem the flow of arms from Iran to its Houthi opponents in the war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has since said that aid can go through “liberated ports” but not Houthi-controlled Hodeidah, the conduit for the vast bulk of imports into Yemen.

The UN reported that the closure of Yemen’s border has halted the delivery of emergency assistance for nearly 280,000 internally displaced people, and stranded some of its staff outside the country while others lack fuel for transport.

Children protest against the Saudi-led coalition outside the UN offices in Sanaa. (Reuters Photo)

Who are at risk?

Yemen already has 7 million people on the brink of famine, but without the reopening of all ports that number could grow by 3.2 million, the heads of the World Food Programme, UNICEF and the World Health Organization had said in a joint statement.

“The cost of this blockade is being measured in the number of lives that are lost,” the statement from David Beasley, Anthony Lake and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

At least one million children are at risk if a fast-spreading diphtheria outbreak is not stopped in its tracks, and the lives of 400,000 pregnant women and their babies are under threat because of the lack of medicines.

There is also the risk of a renewed flare-up in cholera, which was on the wane after the most explosive outbreak ever recorded - with over 900,000 cases and 2,200 deaths in the past six months.

The UN refugee agency expressed alarm at the worsening humanitarian situation, noting that at a center for displaced Yemenis in Sanaa “hundreds more people are approaching the facility daily, saying they are no longer able to meet basic needs or afford medical care”.

A malnourished child lies in a bed waiting to receive treatment at a therapeutic feeding center in a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP File Photo)
A displaced Yemeni family are pictured next to their makeshift shelter on a street in the Yemeni coastal city of Hodeidah. (AFP Photo)

Politics behind the blockade

It’s all about the conflict between long-standing arch rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both powers are waging a contest for power on several fronts across the Middle East, most notably in Yemen and Lebanon.

The Saudi-led coalition began battling Iran-aligned Houthi rebels and their allies in September 2015 on behalf of Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

But the war Saudi Arabia launched in Yemen over two years ago appears more intractable than ever, with nothing but further suffering in sight.

Despite crushing air power by the coalition seeking to reinstall the country’s exiled president, Yemen’s Shia rebels, with the political backing of Iran, still hold large swaths of territory, including the capital Sanaa.

And while the US-supported coalition’s recent tightening of a blockade to include aid shipments might be intended to starve the rebels into submission, they remain dug in to difficult, mountainous and urban terrain.

Newly-recruited Houthi fighters gesture as they ride a car before heading to the frontline to fight against government forces, in Sanaa. (Reuters Photo)

Unlike other regional conflicts in Syria or Libya, no side is winning and peace talks are non-existent. With both sides deeply committed to victory, face-saving exits are elusive, especially with the Saudi-Iranian rivalry heating up. The war, which has killed more than 10,000 civilians and pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine, appears unlikely to end any time soon.

First Published: Nov 22, 2017 09:37 IST