Yemen is ‘one step away from famine,’ U.N. leader warns Security Council

A boy carries a bag of sugar to his family during a food distribution by Yemeni volunteers in Taiz, Yemen. (AP Photo/Abdulnasser Alseddik)

Amid hunger, cholera and daily attacks in Yemen, an entire generation has nearly lost its formative years, the U.N. humanitarian chief warned, underscoring the need for peace immediately.

“The conflict has gone on for too long,” said Stephen O’Brien, emergency relief coordinator and undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, in his prepared remarks to the Security Council.

The United Nations has proposed a roadmap for peace talks, which appear promising.

“It is high time the parties put the Yemeni people first and reached a peaceful agreement in order to salvage what is left of the infrastructure, economy and social services of the country, and most importantly to address the aspirations of the Yemeni people to live in a peaceful society,” O’Brien said in his report. “If disregarded, the collapse of the country will have menacing consequences not only for the Yemeni people but to the entire region.”

Roughly half of the 24 million people in Yemen live in a state of crisis, the World Food Program (WFP) reported last week. It said it needs $250 million to help the more than 7 million people who go hungry every day, as well as others affected by the war. WFP is able to support 3 million people a month, but it is running short on funds.

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Total humanitarian assistance is reaching more people. Aid groups supported 3.5 million people a month in the first half of the year and now are reaching 4.6 million each month. O’Brien said that more money and better humanitarian access would help efforts to reach more people.

“Armed Houthi and Saleh forces routinely intimidate, delay and harass humanitarians, threatening the Yemenis’ last lifeline with arrests and deportation, or demanding the diversion of humanitarian assistance to their fighters. These are all unacceptable breaches of humanitarian law and humanitarian principles,” he said.

According to UNICEF, 1.5 million people are acutely malnourished and 7.5 million children cannot reach health care facilities. Bombings have destroyed hospitals and roads, and less than half of Yemen’s health-care facilities are functional.

UNICEF supported the Sana’a Water Corporation with fuel to pump fresh water to Amanat Al Asima for one week, as well as in two villages in the south, providing access to clean water to more than 169,000 people. (Credit: UNICEF/EC/flickr)

UNICEF supported the Sana’a Water Corporation with fuel to pump fresh water to Amanat Al Asima for one week, as well as in two villages in the south, providing access to clean water to more than 169,000 people. (Credit: UNICEF/EC/flickr)

This diminished access to health care could have devastating consequences amid a cholera outbreak. Officials confirmed 61 cases and are investigating more than 1,700 other cases. The World Health Organization warned that if nothing is done to contain the outbreak, as many as 76,000 people could get cholera. The outbreak and spread of the waterborne disease is glaring example of failing public services.

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“The complete, permanent collapse of public institutions must be prevented. Whilst the primary duty lies with the government of Yemen, the de facto Houthi authorities and the previous Saleh regime, I call upon anyone with any influence to heed this call, including ensuring that salaries of doctors and nurses and other critical civil servants to be paid,” O’Brien said.

Yemen is “one step away from famine,” he warned. While many factors contribute, politics fuel famine. Hunger would not be a significant problem if the country were stable and its public services continued to work. The government is struggling to support Yemenis with parts of the country controlled by rebels. Even basic services like trash collection are not operating in some cities.

The cascading problems have a real human toll. 10,000 children under the age of five have died from preventable diseases since March 2015. Diarrhea and pneumonia should not kill babies, but they do when health services are not available and access to clean water disappears. And thousands more are caught in the crossfire.

O’Brien pleaded for peace.

“The parties, their proxies and those with influence over them … can get behind the framework agreement put forward by the Special Envoy and secure peace in 30 days. It is a political decision which takes courage and leadership,” he said.

“We cannot wait.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.