Aid groups launch Yemen crisis appeal as hunger reaches record high

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

More than 2 million children in Yemen are acutely malnourished, UNICEF officials said today. In response, U.K.-based aid groups will launch an appeal to fund their humanitarian response on Tuesday.

“Malnutrition in Yemen is at an all-time high and increasing,” Meritxell Relano, UNICEF acting representative in Yemen, said in a statement. “The state of health of children in the Middle East’s poorest country has never been as catastrophic as it is today.”

Yemen, a country that imported nearly 90 percent of its food supply before the fighting starting, is running out of food, according to Oxfam America. Food imports are meeting less than half the total need.

“Yemen is being slowly starved to death by warring parties that are using food as a weapon of war,” Raymond Offenheiser, head of Oxfam America, warned in a statement. “The country’s economy, institutions, and ability to feed and care for its people are all on the brink of collapse. This is not by accident – it is systematic.”

UNICEF estimates that one child dies every 10 minutes from preventable diseases, like diarrhea and malnutrition. Only half of existing medical facilities are functional. Health professionals who are still working are not receiving pay. As a result, less than one-third of people in Yemen have access to medical care, according to UNICEF. Aid groups and U.N. agencies are trying to fill the health-care gaps, but fighting and lack of funds are major obstacles.

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The Disasters Emergency Committee, an organization made up of 13 groups including Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision, will broadcast its appeal to respond to the crisis on all major U.K. television channels.

The coordinated appeal is notable, because it is only triggered in emergencies. It represents the level of urgency felt by the seven members of the committee who are directly responding to the Yemeni crisis. By banding together, they hope to both raise the money they need to respond and raise awareness about the crisis in Yemen.

The Yemeni civil war intensified in March 2015 when an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia began military support for the government.

Some 18 million people need assistance. When the government collapsed, basic services like trash pick-up stopped. And with food supplies cut off, millions are going hungry. The World Food Program projects that the number of food-insecure people could rise from 14 million to 21 million if the situation does not improve. Not only can hunger lead to death, but for those who survive, there are long-term consequences such as stunted growth and irreversible brain damage.

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Fighting between government forces and rebel groups has killed or injured more than 11,000 civilians. Oxfam called on warring sides to enact a cease-fire and make a peace deal.

Human rights groups are simultaneously pressing the U.S. to end its support for the Saudi-led coalition. Human Rights Watch said that the U.S. may be complicit in “atrocities” committed by the coalition by selling weapons to the Saudis. And Doctors Without Borders slammed the coalition for claiming that the bombing of a hospital was a mistake.

“Governments selling weapons to Saudi Arabia cannot with any credibility rely on either coalition or Yemeni-led investigations to determine whether these weapons are being used against civilians,” Human Rights Watch researcher Priyanka Motaparthy, told the AP last week. “The U.S., U.K. and others selling weapons to Saudi Arabia should suspend these sales until unlawful attacks are curtailed and properly investigated.”

Whether it is the humanitarian crisis or the potential human rights violations, there is a consensus plea to stop the fighting.

“While the situation is extremely dire, there is still time to keep chronic hunger from becoming widespread starvation … what is needed most of all is peace,” said Offenheiser.

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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.