The perfect humanitarian storm has arrived in Yemen

Five months ago, I asked in a post on Future Development whether the March 2015 Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen—the poorest country in the Middle East—would lead to a perfect humanitarian storm. Well, the storm has hit and proven to be even more destructive than imagined. On July 1, the U.N. declared Yemen a level three emergency, its classification for the most severe large-scale humanitarian crisis. The head of the International Red Cross said that “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.”

Just a few numbers make the extent of the disaster clear. There have been some 30,000 casualties in Yemen since March 2015, including nearly 5,000 deaths, of which over 400 are children. An average of 8 children being killed or maimed each day. In April some 60 percent of Yemenis or 16 million people needed humanitarian assistance; that number has now reached 21 million—80 percent of the country’s population. In 2014, 41 percent of the population (10.6 million) was food insecure and 5 million severely so; the latest numbers have grown, respectively, to 12.9 million and 6 million.  

In April, not only was Yemen dealing with the newly unleashed military intervention but it was burdened with about 330,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), some dating back to earlier internal conflicts but many from the civil war with the Houthis that got underway in 2004. Today the number of IDPs has quintupled, numbering close to 1.5 million. Most are from Aden and Al-Dhale’e in the South and Sa’ada—the Houthi stronghold in the North.

Government agencies are now unable to deliver basic healthcare and nutrition services as well as water and electricity. Yemen is a country that imports over 90 percent of its food and the war and ensuing blockade have had their impact on the distribution and availability of food. 1.8 million children are likely to suffer from malnutrition in 2015, an increase of 1 million over 2014 and, of these, half a million will be at risk of severe malnutrition, a threefold increase over 2014. UNICEF has warned that 10 governorates are at crisis levels that place them just one step away from a famine. UNICEF also noted full or partial damage to 429 schools, while 3,600 schools will fail to open due to security considerations, affecting 1.8 million students.

Over 15 million people are in need of healthcare and over 20 million need clean water and sanitation—an increase of 52 percent since the intervention. The price of water has increased to such an extent that many families are reportedly spending one-third of their income on water. Inevitably, the crisis in sanitation has led to dramatic health problems.

As the country’s health system falters, diseases are breaking out, including dengue fever, the most rapidly spreading mosquito-borne viral disease in the world. The last outbreak of the disease in 2011 had resulted in 1,500 cases, but the numbers are much worse now. In Aden some 8,000 people have contracted dengue fever since March 2014 and cases of typhoid and malaria are also reported. In late August 2015, the World Health Organization appealed for a safe corridor to reach more than 3 million people in Yemen’s most populated governorate of Taiz, where cases of the disease had spiked. The governorates’ three major hospitals are currently inaccessible, cutting off services to sick and wounded civilians. In Mukalla city it was reported in mid-July that there had been 1,442 reported cases of dengue fever and at least a dozen deaths.

In the meantime, there are some successes in this dismal picture. In one campaign, vaccinations were provided to 3.9 million children under 5 years against polio and to more than 850,000 children against measles. However more than 2.6 million children remain at risk of measles and another 2.5 million under risk of other intestinal and respiratory diseases.

In the midst of its myriad political and humanitarian challenges over the years, Yemen had generously hosted 295,000 refugees, mostly Somalis who automatically receive refugee status in Yemen. They are now slowly escaping back to Somalia, with nearly 30,000 having returned since April. Yemen also had 15,000 Syrian and 3,000 Iraqi refugees, numbers reflecting those registered with the UNHCR. Yemen’s Ministry of the Interior puts the actual number of Syrian refugees at 100,000. Whereas in April, there had been a few hundred Yemenis that had made their way to Djibouti and Somalia, now there are 10,000 Yemenis in Djibouti and thousands more in Somalia. In a further tragedy, UNHCR noted the arrival of over 10,000 refugees into Yemen since March 2015, mostly Ethiopians, some misinformed about the country by people smugglers but all illegally on their way to Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

Above all, what Yemen needs is an end to hostilities and a return to peace. Only then will we have a full picture of the damage the country has endured. In the meantime Yemen will need all the outside aid and support she can get. Here unfortunately, the situation is dire: only 19 percent, $298 million, of the $1.6 billion requested by humanitarian agencies has been funded. There have been contributions of $252 million outside of this humanitarian appeal but the shortfall is still above $1 billion. Yemen deserves better from the international community and, as one of its poorest members, from the Arab world as a whole, both in pushing hard for a political solution and for financial and other support for its reconstruction efforts.