Although the international community has remained silent for the most part during the conflict in Yemen, it can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to what the United Nations noted as one of the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crises.
The war that broke out more than two years ago has already claimed more than 7,600 lives, mostly civilians, wounded nearly 42,000, and internally displaced over 3 million individuals.
Several key players have been directly and indirectly contributing to the conflict in the Gulf region’s poorest state. On one hand, there is the Saudi-led coalition of mostly Sunni states that has been conducting airstrike and military campaigns since March 2015 in an attempt to re-establish the internationally recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in Yemen.
On the other hand, there are armed Houthi rebels, loyal to former authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh and supported by regional Shia power Iran. The US and UK have added more fuel to the fire by providing aid with intelligence and logistics, besides selling arms, to the Saudi coalition.
This emergency has created a range of major humanitarian challenges such as food and water scarcity, dramatic spike in acute malnutrition, increased risk of contagious diseases, inadequate supply of medicine and equipment, unsafe conditions causing people to flee their homes, and widespread shelter needs among others.
The deepening crisis in Yemen demands greater and immediate action by donor countries, humanitarian organisations, international aid agencies, civil society organisations, different UN agencies as well as member states of the UN Security Council.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 17 million Yemenis are food insecure -- millions of children and women are suffering from severe malnutrition, more than 7 million could face starvation, and about 20.7 million people desperately require some form of humanitarian assistance in what is “creating the largest food security emergency in the world.”
Having adequate aid is not enough if it does not reach those in need. Currently, both the Saudi coalition and Houti rebels are blocking access to aid by civilians, which is in breach of international law
If famine grips Yemen, governments will have no excuse for their failure to rescue innocent Yemenis because aid agencies have repeatedly warned them of the imminent danger and grave consequences of this man-made catastrophe which could be averted if they acted at the right time.
Mark Kaye, spokesperson of Save the Children, Yemen, stated: “If things are not done now, we are going to be looking back on this and millions of children will have starved to death, and we’ll all have been aware of this for some time.
That will shame us as an international community for years to come.”
Besides food scarcity, acute shortage of water, sanitation, and hygiene services have also intensified over the last few years.
Approximately 15.7 million people need support to access safe drinking water and sanitation. A massive cholera epidemic has only exacerbated the crisis, affecting at least half a million of the population, owing to the inaccessibility of safe drinking water and sanitation.
A mare’s nest of misery
With a crumbling health system, cholera victims and others fail to receive medical treatment. A report by the World Health Organisation reveals that about 55% of health facilities are not functional.
Approximately 14.8 million people do not have access to primary health care, with 8.8 million living in severely affected areas.
Jacqueline Lopour from the Centre for International Governance Innovation, correctly points out that, if “unchecked,” the conflict in Yemen could become the source of the world’s next major refugee crisis.
Without urgent attention and effective action by the international community, the complex emergency in Yemen could very well turn into a repeat scenario of the Syrian refugee crisis that was largely ignored by the world until Europe was flooded by nearly a million asylum-seekers.
The international community should aim to limit the sufferings of Yemenis.
A way forward
As course of actions, they need to do two things straight away: First, raise the necessary fund for aid, and second, ensure the access to aid by the recipients.
As of August 26, the UN has raised only 41% of the $2.1 billion it requires to provide life-saving assistance to millions of individuals.
UN needs to organise aid conferences to bring together its member states and different civil society organisations to obtain the full funding for its 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan.
The US, boasting of being a humanitarian champion and being the largest donor to the UN fund, needs to step forward.
It needs to help fulfill the UN’s target as well as insist its close ally Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states release the funds they have officially pledged. It must also allow UNOCHA to decide on how the funds will be allocated without further intervention.
Having adequate aid is not enough if it does not reach those in need.
Currently, both the Saudi coalition and Houti rebels are blocking access to aid by civilians, which is in breach of international law.
The head of Oxfam’s Yemen program, Sajjad Mohammad, stated: “Urgent action is needed to get food into the country and move it from port to plate, along with vital fuel and medicines.”
The US can pressure Saudi coalition and attempt to negotiate with Houti rebels to open up the ports and help set up secure routes for aid delivery. Meanwhile, UK can utilise its leverage as the “pen-holder” in Yemen’s case to push United Nations Security Council and its member states to take meaningful action to protect civilians in crisis.
Nisha Ali is a graduate student at Harvard University. She has previously worked as a journalist and a social research consultant, and holds a degree in politics from The University of Melbourne.