Yemeni government tank and truck-mounted guns operate near the front line in the battle against Houthi rebels in the mountainous region outside Sana’a, Yemen. (Photographer: Glen Carey/Bloomberg)

Why Hunger Rivals Bombs as the Biggest Danger in Yemen

(Bloomberg) -- In Yemen, a four-year war has produced what United Nations officials call “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time.” Markets, hospitals and other civilian sites have been repeatedly attacked. Disease and hunger rival bombs and gunfire as the biggest dangers to ordinary people. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East; the war has it headed toward famine. A UN-mandated investigation concluded that all the major parties to the conflict, especially a Saudi Arabian-led coalition and the Yemeni government it backs, have shown a disregard for civilian life possibly amounting to war crimes. Western governments that support the coalition have come under increasing pressure to desist. The U.S. Senate voted March 13 to withdraw American backing. U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened a veto.

1. Who’s fighting whom?

Broadly, on one side are Houthi rebels, members of a Shiite Muslim tribe from the mountains of northern Yemen, who took control of the capital, Sana’a, and other cities in 2015. They complain of marginalization of their community and are supported by Shiite-majority Iran. On the other side stand forces of the internationally recognized Yemeni government and allied militias backed by Saudi Arabia and its coalition of mainly Sunni Muslim nations. The U.S. and U.K. support the coalition with weapons sales and logistical help.

2. Why is Saudi Arabia involved?

Its leaders say they feared that Houthi control of Yemen would give Iran a foothold in the Arabian peninsula that would threaten Saudi interests. Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a larger battle for dominance in the Arab world.

3. How has the fighting affected civilians?

The UN has verified about 17,700 deaths and injuries among civilians, while the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project estimates that about 58,000 civilians and combatants have been killed since the beginning of 2016. According to the UN, 4,800 civilians were killed or injured in 2018 alone, most of them on the volatile west coast, where coalition forces have tried to take the port of Hodeidah from the Houthis. Most civilian casualties were the result of coalition air strikes, according to a UN report, with 30 percent of people injured inside their homes. Investigators commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council in August said such strikes may amount to war crimes. The investigators said they gathered reports of shelling into civilian areas by Houthi forces that required further investigation.

4. What’s the famine risk?

According to the UN, 20 million Yemenis, out of a population of about 29 million, are food insecure, and half are suffering from extreme levels of hunger. They include 2 million children who require treatment for acute malnutrition. Humanitarian workers have discovered parts of the country where people were eating leaves to survive. The aid group Save the Children estimates that as many as 85,000 children under five may have already died during the war from extreme hunger and disease.

5. Why is there so much hunger?

Yemen relies heavily on imports for its food supplies. The country grows only about 5 percent of the wheat it consumes. That’s because freshwater for crops is scarce, and farmers increasingly have turned to cultivating the more profitable qat, a narcotic leaf that 90 percent of Yemeni men chew on a daily basis. The Saudi-led coalition has disrupted food and other supplies coming into Yemen by imposing a naval blockade on ports in the Houthi-controlled north, notably Hodeidah and Salif, which normally handle about 80 percent of imports. Coalition ships have held up vessels bound for the ports for significant periods or diverted them to other countries. At times they’ve stopped all traffic. The battle for control of Hodeidah further disrupted the food supply; the two sides reached a cease-fire agreement in the city in December, though there are concerns it may collapse.

Why Hunger Rivals Bombs as the Biggest Danger in Yemen

6. So food is in short supply?

To some extent. Commercial food imports at the end of 2018 were 25 percent below the level a year earlier. But elevated prices are as much of a challenge. The Houthis contribute to the problem by extracting payments on goods that are trucked through the areas they control. A sharp depreciation of the national currency has pushed prices higher still. Civil servants, who with their families make up about a quarter of the population, haven’t received regular pay since August 2016. The 3.3 million people in Yemen who remain displaced from their homes by the war are especially cash-strapped. Many have had to sell their possessions to meet their most basic needs. About 685,000 people have fled fighting in Hodeidah and the west coast, according to the UN.

7. Why is disease such a threat?

Yemen was hit by the worst epidemic of cholera ever recorded starting in late 2016. More than 1.3 million people have been sickened and about 2,800 have died. Health authorities expect as many as 350,000 more cases in 2019. Cholera, an acute diarrhea disease, is bred by poor sanitation and a lack of clean water, conditions created when wastewater treatment plants reduced operations because of fuel shortages caused by import disruptions. The infection is normally easily treated by replacing lost fluids, but that requires clean water.

8. Is the blockade legal?

The UNHCR’s investigation concluded that there are “reasonable grounds” to conclude that it violates the proportionality rule of international humanitarian law. Under that convention, a blockade is illegitimate if its impact on civilians is disproportionate to its military benefits. The investigators reported that searches of ships by the blockading forces had turned up no weapons. For these reasons, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch earlier called on the UN Security Council to impose travel bans and asset freezes on coalition leaders, including the Saudi crown prince and defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman.

9. How does the coalition justify the blockade?

The coalition partners say they aim to prevent the rebels from receiving arms shipments from Iran. After the rebels in November 2017 first shot a missile targeted at the Saudi capital Riyadh, the coalition justified temporarily reinstating a total blockage of Houthi-controlled ports by arguing that missile components were entering Yemen from outside the country. Saudi officials have also expressed concern that allowing ships to call on Houthi-controlled ports gives the rebels a source of fees that help fund their war efforts.

10. How’s the rest of the world reacted?

The UN has partnered with humanitarian groups to provide assistance to Yemen’s neediest people. In early 2018, Germany suspended arms exports to Saudi Arabia and its fighting partner the United Arab Emirates. Norway has ceased such sales to the U.A.E. In the U.K., parliamentarians have challenged their government’s backing of the Saudi coalition. The U.S. Senate’s resolution to end U.S. assistance requires approval by the House of Representatives, which passed a similar measure in February. Saudi policies, including in Yemen, have come under greater scrutiny since Saudi agents killed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Turkey in October. President Trump, however, continues to consider the kingdom a close ally and is expected to veto congressional action against it.

The Reference Shelf

  • A QuickTake explainer on Yemen’s civil war.
  • The report on possible war crimes committed in Yemen commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council.
  • A report on Yemen’s humanitarian needs by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
  • International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch reports on the effects of the Saudi-led blockade.
  • A U.S. Congressional Research Service report “Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention.”

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