Even before a blockade was imposed around Yemen, some 7 million people faced famine-like conditions. Over 900,000 people were sickened by the worst cholera outbreak in recent history. 20 million out of Yemen’s 27 million people relied on some form of humanitarian relief. Fighting regularly targeted civilian targets, hospitals and other infrastructure.
Yemen was already the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. But the UN warned for months that it could always get worse should the country’s last remaining lifelines be shut off.
That is exactly what happened on November 6.
According to the UN, no humanitarian aid has been able to enter the country since then. There have been no flights in and out of the country’s main airport and no ships docking at the port through which 70% of all food consumed in Yemen is imported.
The impacts are already being felt on the ground.
The UN refugee agency today said that fuel prices in the capitol of Sana’a have increased by 60 percent and trucked water by 133 percent. This has caused a spike in the number of people seeking humanitarian assistance. From the UN Refugee Agency:
For example, at a UNHCR supported centre in Sana’a for the internally displaced, run by our partner ADRA, some 600 to 800 people are now approaching the centre every day. Before the border closures we would typically see 400 to 600 people. People say they are no longer able to meet basic needs or afford medical care. Some are facing the threat of eviction.
In Aden, where there were shortages of fuel and gas already before the border closures, displaced people are reporting that prices for food have almost doubled. Some people now have no other choice than to eat less.
And even as the Saudi government has said they will lift the blockade on some ports, UN staff on the ground have reported no such thing. The country’s main airport in Sana’a has been reportedly knocked offline by a Saudi airstrike, so even if the Saudis did lift the humanitarian blockade, there would be no way to reach people in the rebel-held capitol city. For the last year, the Saudis had blocked all commercial traffic to and from this airport and the only flights coming in and out were UN humanitarian charters. These new airstrikes destroyed capacity in an airport whose sole function for the last year has been the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Meanwhile, the Saudi blockade of the Red Sea port of Hodeidah remains intact. This is the largest port in the country, through which most food and humanitarian relief is imported. It is currently controlled by the Houthi rebels, but the Saudis have up to now allowed for some aid to flow through it. No longer.
For months, humanitarian officials have warned that if this port is shut down, attacked or otherwise impaired the entire country could plunge into a famine.
Last week, the head of the World Food Program David Beasley warned that if the blockade continues, “I can’t imagine this will not be one of the most devastating humanitarian catastrophes we’ve seen in decades.”
The Saudis have apparently said they would open the port if the UN revamped its inspection regime. But the top UN humanitarian official on the ground dismissed this option as an impossible task that would delay the delivery of urgently needed food and relief supplies. Like the attack on the Sana’a airport, one might interpret this demand as a ploy to further delay the delivery of life-saving relief to needy populations in rebel controlled areas.
The UN’s aid coordinator in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, said there was no time to wait for a new inspection system to be set up.
“The humanitarian impact of what is happening here right now is unimaginable,” he told reporters in Geneva in a phone conference.
“I don’t think discussions (on new inspections) should hamper the port remaining open”, he added.
“The humanitarian aspect of this is something we need to address immediately because we can’t have those ports closed or those airports closed while we wait for discussions on new (inspection) mandates to go ahead.”
What is happening in Yemen right now is the UN’s nightmare scenario: no aid is being delivered to a country nearly entirely depended on it; and at the same time, there is little political will to restore humanitarian access in the country.
Even the Trump administration, which is a key ally of the Saudi-led coalition, has been largely silent on this blockade. There have been no calls from key administration officials to restore humanitarian access. No obvious pressure applied to restore food shipments to Hodeida. If the attack on the Sana’a airport is any indication, it would seem that the Saudis believe they have a free hand to continue to lay siege to an entire country.
For now, it seems that the most likely outcome is that the Sana’a airport and the Port of Hodeida will be closed for the foreseeable future and masses of people will starve to death.