Thursday, October 6, 2016

Save Yemen before the famine rages

One of Yemeni graffiti artist, Murad Subay's work in Sana'a street, reflecting on the humanitarian crisis. 

*The war in Yemen has been often described by media as the forgotten war and in my view, that’s an inaccurate description. It’s rather a lucrative war; lucrative to the West and the East. It has been nineteenth months since the Saudi-led coalition, backed by the US and Britain, began its airstrikes campaign. This came following an attempted coup d'etat against president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi by Yemen’s rebels group – the Houthis – in September 2014. Ever since, the West has been showing indifference to the tragedy in Yemen. As the US, UK and other Western countries have an interest in the arms sale with the Saudis, and a number of Arab countries are themselves members of the coalition, and the Houthi-Saleh coalition stands as deadly to thousands of Yemeni civilians, the international community is turning a blind eye to the atrocities in Yemen, mostly the silent death of thousands of Yemenis through starvation.

Towards the end of Yemen’s post-uprising transitional period in 2014, Yemen started to witness a counter-revolution movement, manifested in Houthis-Saleh alliance, each motivated by its own agenda. Houthis were discontent with the new political realignment preparing Yemen for a new ruling system (Federalism) and led by their political agenda in restoring a religious imamate and resuming their hierarchical supremacy. Saleh was led by resentment and aiming at crushing those who helped oust him in 2011. Over the coming months, the alliance began an aggressive military campaign against Saleh’s oppositional forces, which included president Hadi, after the Houthis descended to Sana’a and militarily took over the capital and stormed into Hadi’s presidential palace. Consequently, Hadi escaped to Saudi Arabia and sought support. In the name of restoring legitimacy in Yemen, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition consisting of 11 Arab states and launched its airstrikes campaign.

Midst this complex conflict, Yemeni people pay a heavy price as they are directly and indirectly affected. The human cost in Yemen war has reached a critical stage, causing the death of at least 10,000 people, the displacement of more than 3 million people and a worsening humanitarian situation for 80% of Yemen’s 27 million population. One of the devastating impacts of the war is hunger and the predicted famine unfolding itself in front of the world’s eyes and next to some of the world’s richest countries. Over half of Yemen’s population – 14.4 million Yemenis unable to meet their food needs and 19.4 million people lacking clean water and sanitation. As children are the most vulnerable, it is estimated that 320,000 children in Yemen face severe malnutrition. All these indicators are nothing but an early warning of a looming famine.

Photos courtesy: Oxfam. 

Hunger Causes

Prior to the ongoing conflict, several factors made Yemen not only one of the poorest countries in the world but also the poorest Arab country in the Arab region. In light of major domestic events, Yemenis have been suffering a life under overlapping deprivations. The foremost event was the return of about one million Yemeni guest workers from Gulf countries to Yemen in 1990 following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait contributed greatly to needs of jobs, schools, healthcare and other basic social services. Then, in light of Yemen’s unification and the country’s failure to manage the challenges of integrating the North and the South’s economic systems and resolving the implications of the post-civil war period; all these events and much more had a devastating impact on the developmental growth of the country.

In 2009, nearly half of Yemen’s population were living under the poverty line. To be poor in Yemen meant to be food insecure, with no clean water, illiterate and unable to afford feeding your kids nutritious food. Thus, Yemen was repeatedly ranked at the bottom in the Human Development Index. Yemen even failed to achieve decreasing the hunger rate, which was one of the UN’s millennium goals. While all these figures were emerging, Yemen’s ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh was busy piling up his wealth in billions.

Midst of a milieu of ongoing instability, corruption and unequal distribution of national wealth, and out of social inequality and major economic grievances, Yemen’s 2011 uprising broke out leading the country into a vicious circle of one political crisis after another impacting the already fragile economy to decline further.

As Yemen has been rolling into an eco-political shock after another over years, the ongoing conflict has tremendously exacerbated the food safety. For a country that relies on the import of 90 percent of its food commodities, it’s extremely difficult to cope with the current dire humanitarian situation. The World Food Program explains, “fuel shortages and import restrictions have reduced the availability of essential food commodities in the country.” As Yemen was already crumbling by the ongoing conflict, the occurrence of a couple of natural disasters in the past few years; from flash floods to powerful cyclone have had an appalling effect on the situation.

Photo courtesy: Oxfam.

Man-Made Famine

Although the war is a contributory factor, hunger in Yemen is largely a man-made catastrophe for which both the Saudis and the Houthis bear vast responsibility. They are both using food as a systematic and strategic weapon in the war. A blockade over Yemen’s main ports has been placed by the Saudi-led coalition since the beginning of the war, denying flights and shipments of fuel, food and medicine supplies. According to a UN reporter, the Saudis as well forbid aid agencies from delivering humanitarian aid to Houthi-controlled areas. Over the past few months, a number of bridges used to transport UN food aid have been bombed by the coalition. In parallel, the Houthi-Saleh coalition has systematically put people to death in battled areas by denying besieged people access to water and food; this is evident formerly in Aden and currently in Taiz. As a quick solution, a black market for goods is thriving in the country, where only those few who can afford the high prices in the market can buy. The World Bank today estimates that almost all Yemen’s population live under the poverty line.

Silence is a War Crime

Millions of Yemenis are not only poor today but they are also in despair and hungry for both peace and food. As more than 21 million of people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance inside Yemen, this catastrophe is more than anywhere else in the world, including Syria. As human rights issues blogger and activist, I am frustrated by the world’s apathy over the tragedy in Yemen. I always write and give talks about the situation in Yemen, and after describing the devastating current picture, I try to ask the world to imagine that Yemen was hit by an earthquake, hoping that this would encourage them to rally and help this impoverished nation. Instead Yemenis are met with worldwide indifference and left to die in silence. Not taking an action to save Yemen before the famine rages is a choice the the international community is making which unfortunately will be regarded as a disgrace to the international humanitarian system (22 September 2016).

*This essay was originally published in Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation's website on September 29, 2016.