Karen Dabrowska

Originally published: 15th January 2021

by Friends of South Yemen

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“Yemenis are not going hungry. They are being starved.” This statement from the UN Under-Secretary-General Mark Lowcock accurately describes the famine in Yemen which is a man-made disaster brought about by five years of civil war.

The areas worst affected by acute food insecurity are the Marib, Taizz, and Al Jawf governorates in the North, and those of Al Bayda, Abyan, and Hadhramaut in the South.

After the Houthis, a hardline Shia sect backed by the Iranian regime, overthrew the internationally recognized government in Sanaa in 2014 and took control of most of the North, an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia began air strikes against areas held by the Houthis in March 2015. The bombings still continue; ceasefires are violated and civilians suffer as the infrastructure and health facilities are destroyed.

More than 1,900 of the country’s 3,500 health facilities are currently either not functioning or partially functioning with insufficient staff and equipment, leaving half the population without adequate healthcare. Yemeni forces, the Houthis and the Saudi-led Arab coalition have attacked over 100 medical facilities. Water and sanitation systems have also been destroyed.

According to the UN, as of November 5, 2020, there have been more than 900,000 suspected cholera cases and 2,192 associated deaths have been reported. More than half of the suspected cases are children. People have also been affected by malaria, dengue fever, shortages of clean drinking water, severe flooding, and locust swarms.

Humanitarian crisis

Yemenis, many of whose health conditions have already deteriorated, now face the COVID-19 pandemic. As of August 30, the government confirmed 1,950 cases and 564 COVID-19-related deaths, but the UN has warned that the actual number of cases and deaths is much higher.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) prediction of a worst-case scenario, namely that 93 per cent of a population of nearly 30 million would be infected with the virus, is about to become a reality.

An estimated 4.3 million people have fled from their homes since the start of the conflict in 2014 and approximately 3.3 million remain displaced. The camps of internally displaced persons are fertile ground for the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases such as cholera and scabies.

Lack of adequate food supplies leading to hunger, malnutrition, and famine is the greatest humanitarian tragedy caused by the war. In March 2020, UNICEF estimated that 2 million children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition.

The magnitude of the crisis is illustrated by the fact that one child dies every 12 minutes. In May, UNICEF described Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world” – a country where 80 per cent of the population, which amounts to over 26 million people, were in need of humanitarian assistance.

In 2018, Save the Children reported that over 85,000 children had died since the beginning of the conflict as a direct result of famine. Since then, entire communities have been decimated by hunger. Nearly half of all Yemeni children suffer stunted growth because of malnutrition which also impairs their cognitive development.

Henrietta Fore, the head of UNICEF, described the lives of Yemeni children as “a walking nightmare”. With an economic crisis – the Yemeni riyal has plummeted to an all-time low and 80 per cent of the country’s food is imported – skyrocketing food prices have plunged millions of families into crisis.

Babar Baloch, UNHRC spokesperson, said that with rampant inflation and few livelihood opportunities, families can no longer afford basic meals. “To put food on the table, many displaced families are selling off belongings, pulling children out of school and sending them to work, begging on the streets, or eating just once a day.”

In late 2019, the UN-commissioned report by the University of Denver Assessing the Impact of War on Development in Yemen confirmed that more Yemenis had died of hunger, disease, and lack of health clinics than from fighting; the figure was estimated at 131,000 people. War in comparison was responsible for 100,000 deaths – a figure published by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) which tracks confirmed fatalities of war.

Between 2015 and 2019 international donors gave the UN-led aid response in Yemen $8.35 billion, including $3.6 billion in 2019 that reached almost 14 million people each month with some form of aid. This was up from 7.5 million people in 2018.

However, aid agencies say that in 2019 and 2020, they spent vast amounts of their time and energy struggling to get approvals countrywide to provide assistance in accordance with humanitarian principles and without the authorities’ interference.

Partly in response to the obstruction of aid, donor support to UN aid agencies collapsed in June 2020, particularly from Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States. As of August 28, aid agencies received only 24 per cent of the $3.4 billion they requested for the year.

While funding the aid efforts, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and others have sold arms to the Saudi-led coalition, worsening Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. The UK has given £1 billion in aid to Yemen but has licensed £6.5 billion worth of arms to the countries bombing it.


The funding crisis has had a dire impact on Yemeni civilians, including the halving of food assistance to 9 million people and the suspension of support to healthcare services, which the UN says has put the lives of millions on the line.

But there is money in Yemen to assist humanitarian efforts.

A UN Panel of Experts reported in June 2017 that the Houthis had earned up to $1.14 billion from fuel and oil distribution on the black market and that fuel was “one of the main sources of revenue for the Houthis.” However, for the warring factions, humanitarian aid is not a priority.

All parties to the conflict in Yemen have stood in the way of humanitarian aid delivery, demanded that taxes be levied and aid rerouted so that it would benefit their respective militias.

In September 2020, Human Rights Watch published a 65-page report titled Deadly Consequences: Obstruction of Aid in Yemen During Covid-19 which details systematic interference in relief operations by the Houthi authorities, Yemen’s internationally recognized government and affiliated forces, the UAE, and the Southern Transitional Council.

The Houthis have a particularly egregious record of obstructing aid agencies from reaching civilians and diverting aid to their supporters and fighters. In 2019 and 2020, aid workers had to push back against Houthi officials insisting they hand over their cars, computers, and cell phones at the end of projects.

But obstruction of aid agencies in government-held areas in the south and east is also on the rise. In July 2020, Lowcock said that aid agencies reported an “uptick in violent incidents, targeting humanitarian assets and [that] local authorities were adding new bureaucratic requirements.”

In March 2015, in violation of the laws of war, the Saudi-led coalition imposed a naval and air blockade that severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine, on which the vast majority of the population depends.

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is not a by-product of Yemen’s institutional and political failures. It is solely the result of a protracted military conflict and only an end to the conflict will bring an end to the humanitarian crisis.

The country cannot fight a war on two fronts: the military conflict and the fight against famine and disease. The Yemenis have different political agendas: the Houthis want to continue creating an Islamic state while most Southerners want to be independent from the North and establish their own state.

But they are united in their common condition of poverty, hunger, and disease. Ending the fighting and solving the humanitarian problems together can help to end the political stalemate and the pointless war which has no winners except those who trade in arms and the warlords who buy and sell people’s lives.