The World's Worst Humanitarian Crisis, Explained: QuickTake

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(Bloomberg) -- War is always hard on the civilians. In Yemen, a three-year civil conflict has produced what United Nations officials call "the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time." Increasingly, disease and starvation are bigger dangers than bombs and gunfire. Yemen faces the fastest-growing cholera epidemic ever recorded. And UN officials have periodically warned that the country is veering toward famine.

1. Who’s fighting whom?

The war is multi-layered. Broadly, on one side stand forces of the internationally recognized Yemeni government and allied militias backed by Saudi Arabia and its coalition of mainly Sunni Muslim nations. On the other side are Houthi rebels, members of a Shiite Muslim tribe from the mountains of northern Yemen, supported by Shiite-majority Iran. The Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015 to roll back advances by the Houthis, who’d taken control of the capital, Sana’a, and other cities. A new front opened up this year, when southern secessionists took over much of the port city of Aden, the current seat of Yemen’s government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who is living in exile in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

2. Why is Saudi Arabia involved?

Its leaders 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 bad has it gotten for civilians?

The death toll from fighting so far is estimated at about 10,000, relatively low compared to the 470,000 thought to have died in the seven years of civil war in Syria. Yet life in Yemen has become wretched and perilous, on a mass scale. UN officials say that an alarming three-quarters of the country’s 28 million people need outside assistance to stave off hunger and disease, and half of those require it urgently to survive. Of an estimated 1.8 million children under age 5 who are acutely malnourished, 400,000 are so severely underfed they are at 10 times the normal risk of dying.

4. Why is there so much hunger?

Even before the war, Yemen relied heavily on imports for its food supplies. Fresh water for crops is scarce to start with. And rather than grow food, 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 country’s cereal production covers less than 20 percent of its needs. During the war, 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, through which about 80 percent of imports normally enter the country. Coalition ships have held up vessels bound for the ports for significant periods or diverted them to other countries. At times they’ve allowed only humanitarian aid through to Yemen and at other times stopped all traffic. For their part, the Houthis extract payments on goods that are trucked through the areas they control, forcing up food costs.

5. How expensive is food?

Prices of basic goods have increased by more than 150 percent since before the war, and citizens have less money to spend. Civil servants, who with their families make up about a quarter of the population, have received no pay or intermittent pay since August 2016. The 2 million people in Yemen who’ve been driven from their homes by the war are especially cash-strapped. Many have had to sell their possessions to meet their most basic needs.

6. What caused the cholera epidemic?

Cholera, an acute diarrheal disease, is bred by poor sanitation and a lack of clean water -- conditions created when wastewater treatment plants in Yemen reduced their schedules because of fuel shortages caused by the same disruptions affecting foods supplies. Many Yemenis are especially vulnerable to the disease because they are malnourished. Since the cholera outbreak began in April 2017, there have been a million suspected cases nationwide and more than 2,200 associated deaths. Areas under Houthi control are the worst-hit. Cholera is normally easily treated by replacing lost fluids, but that requires clean water.

7. Is the blockade legal?

The U.S., U.K. and Israel are among the nations that have imposed blockades during times of war. Under international humanitarian law, blockades are legal when they prevent arms and materiel from reaching enemy forces. The rules allow warring parties to inspect goods such as food, fuel and medicines destined for civilians but not to excessively delay them. A blockade becomes unlawful if its sole purpose is to starve a population or if it has a disproportionate impact on the civilian population. Arguing that the Saudi-led coalition’s restrictions on goods flowing into Yemen violate the rules, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch 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

8. How does the Saudi-led coalition justify the blockade?

The coalition partners say they aim to prevent the Houthi rebels from receiving arms shipments from Iran. After the Houthis in November 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.

9. Do Yemenis have any reason to be hopeful?

The UN has partnered with humanitarian groups in an effort to raise $2.96 billion to fund a plan to provide life-saving assistance to the neediest 13.1 million in Yemen this year. The plan assumes that the Saudi-led coalition will allow not only humanitarian aid but also commercial imports to flow into Yemen.

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