September 6, 2017

All Eyes on Yemen at the United Nations General Assembly

By Abhik K. Pramanik

On September 12th, the United Nations kicks off its 72nd General Assembly with leaders from across the globe in attendance. Coordination of the U.N.’s humanitarian and disaster relief efforts will be central to the conversation, especially in Yemen, which was recently declared the world’s largest humanitarian crisis by the heads of several global humanitarian agencies.

New U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has called Yemen a country beset by “a tragedy of immense proportions,” and many will be watching to see how President Trump addresses these global humanitarian crises in his first address to the General Assembly.

The World’s Largest Crisis. Yemen is a devastating illustration of how the nature of humanitarian aid has shifted from responding to natural disasters, to providing relief in crises instigated by violent conflict.

The statistics are sobering. Currently, the U.N. estimates that nearly 21 million Yemeni citizens—in a country of 27 million—are in need of some kind of humanitarian assistance. A child under five dies in Yemen every 10 minutes from preventable causes, and at least two million school-age children are out of school. Yemen is also projected to be the first country to run out of water, with roughly 16 million people lacking access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

This lack of access to effective sanitation has led to the infection of over half a million people with cholera, with the majority of cases affecting young people. Already one of the world’s largest cholera outbreaks in half a century, the easily treatable disease has killed nearly 2,000 people.

Yemen’s health system is also massively overstretched, with half of the country’s health facilities destroyed or closed because of the war. UNICEF recently began paying the salaries of 30,000 Yemeni doctors and nurses, who had gone months without pay, to help lessen the impact of cholera.

The country is also teetering toward famine, with over 60 percent of the population not knowing where their next meal will come from. Last month, the U.N. World Food Program fed a record 6 million people in Yemen, but only half received the full ration they needed. Additionally, two million children are still acutely malnourished, making them more susceptible to diseases like cholera.

A Catastrophe Made Worse by Conflict. Already one of the poorest nations in the Middle East before its civil war, Yemen is a dangerous cocktail of broken institutions and endless air strikes.

Before the war, Yemen imported 90 percent of its food, mainly through the port of Hodeida. But when the Houthi rebel group seized control of the port, the coalition led by Saudi Arabia bombed the area—damaging the cranes needed to unload vital cargo—and imposed a stringent maritime blockade on Yemeni imports, resulting in food aid often spoiling by the time it arrives.

Military air strikes have also devastated most of Yemen’s economy, with bombs hitting bridges, poultry farms, power stations, and factories producing Coca-Cola, potato chips, tea, and yogurt. These economic woes have been compounded by the Yemeni Central Bank, which has stopped paying the country’s 1.5 million civil servants—triggering the collapse of the nation’s social safety net. These civil servants were the sole breadwinners for between 10-15 million people— about 50 percent of the Yemeni population.

Next Steps. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley recently praised the Security Council for acknowledging “the clear link between conflict and famine”, and called on all warring parties in famine-afflicted regions to allow “access for food and other life-saving supplies” to vulnerable areas while simultaneously holding “governments and armed groups blocking access accountable.”

Increased humanitarian aid is vitally needed. The U.N. has requested $2.3 billion to meet the humanitarian challenge in Yemen this year, but so far only 41 percent of that target has been reached.

To prevent further devastation in Yemen, however, humanitarian aid will not be enough. To truly ameliorate the Yemeni crisis, experts agree that a diplomatic solution will be needed to broker a peace agreement between government and opposition groups in the country; thus creating breathing room for aid groups to effectively operate once aid arrives.

Sadly, man-made crises like the one in Yemen represent an alarming trend: from Venezuela to South Sudan political conflicts have had severe humanitarian consequences that have overstretched the international humanitarian system. As the U.N. General Assembly convenes in two weeks, world leaders should address the complex forces driving these humanitarian disasters and commit themselves to more effectively coordinating the international body’s political and humanitarian response in Yemen.

photo credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images