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Yemen: Inside the World's Worst Humanitarian Crisis

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

By Jessica Craig

Photo taken from the International Rescue Committee:

Yemen is experiencing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Five years of civil war, combined with high rates of malnutrition and severe disease outbreaks, has left more than 24 million people (80% of Yemen’s population) in need of humanitarian assistance at a time when aid funding is in decline and left Yemen in a state of extreme vulnerability to COVID-19. The Civil War in Yemen The civil war in Yemen began with a failed political transition. Following a 2011-2012 uprising against his three decades of rule, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was replaced by his former deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. As President, Hadi failed to unite Yemen’s disparate political factions and struggled to address issues such as high unemployment, food insecurity and terrorist activity in Yemen. The Shia Muslim Houthi movement, which was heavily involved in the uprising against Saleh, used Hadi’s weakness in the political transition as an opportunity to conduct a gradual takeover of power in northern Yemen, taking control of the capital, Sana’a, between 21st September 2014 and 6th February 2015. The Houthis were initially backed by forces still loyal to the former-president Saleh, who joined the Houthi offensive to overthrow the Hadi government. The alliance between the Houthi movement and Saleh’s forces ultimately collapsed in November 2017 after deadly clashes over control of the Sana’a’s largest mosque, in which Saleh was killed and his forces quickly defeated.

The civil war is often seen as a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Majority-Sunni Saudi Arabia alleged that the Houthi movement has been backed militarily by Iran (a predominantly Shia regional power), and led a coalition with eight regional partners which conducted airstrikes against the Houthis and implemented a partial land, sea and air blockade of Yemen. The coalition received logistical support and intelligence from the US, UK and France. While Saudi Arabia has claimed that the airstrikes have been against Houthi targets, thousands of civilians have been killed and schools and hospitals have been destroyed in over 19,000 attacks up to 2019. The blockade has also prevented aid from reaching people in need in Yemen, and the Houthis are also accused of blocking, intercepting or destroying aid before it reaches its intended recipients.

While Hadi remains the internationally recognised President of Yemen, Houthis retain control of much of northern Yemen and the capital today and there are a number of factions controlling territory in Yemen, which is effectively governed as multiple statelets by the Hadi government, the Houthis and other groups such as the secessionist Southern Transitional Council in the south of the country. Additionally, Islamic State in the Levant and rival Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants are operating in Yemen, seizing control of territory and launching deadly attacks, particularly in the south of Yemen and around Aden. An estimated 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 2015 and 4 million people have been displaced.

The Humanitarian Crisis

Other contributing factors to the humanitarian situation pre-date the political crisis. Even before the conflict, half of the population of Yemen lacked access to adequate food and water. Nevertheless, the ongoing civil war has exacerbated the humanitarian situation due to the destruction of infrastructure and lack of effective governance which limits responses to other facets of the crisis.

During the conflict, Yemen has seen outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria, dengue fever and malaria, exacerbated by the destruction of infrastructure (such as lack of access to clean drinking water and sanitation) and the country’s fragile healthcare system. Only half of hospitals in Yemen are still functional. The cholera outbreak began in 2016 and has been described by the CARE Country Director in Yemen as the world’s worst cholera outbreak, with more than 1.3 million suspected cases reported.

The spread of COVID-19 to Yemen has worsened the country’s public health emergency. The actual number of coronavirus cases in Yemen is currently unknown, due to the division of leadership and low testing capacity. The Yemen Supreme National Emergency Committee for COVID-19 had registered just 1290 cases by 3rd July and the number of cases reported in rebel-held areas remains low, though the outbreak is feared to be much greater. The conditions created by the conflict make people in Yemen more vulnerable to coronavirus and other disease outbreaks. Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people are currently living in densely populated camps where the virus could spread rapidly. UNICEF estimates that 70% of Yemenis lack access to soap, while 11.2 million lack access to basic water supplies, which are vital in preventing the spread of the disease. Furthermore, weakened immune systems as a result of chronic illness and malnutrition may mean that coronavirus is contracted more easily, and is more difficult to survive.

Food insecurity is another major source of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The World Food Programme estimates that 15.9 million people are experiencing food insecurity in Yemen, and that this figure would increase to 20.1 million without aid assistance. Yemen is largely dependent on imports to satisfy domestic consumption, but rising food costs have made it more difficult for people in Yemen to meet their basic nutritional needs. The rapid currency value depreciation of the Yemeni Riyal in 2018 led to price hikes on core commodities such as food and fuel. Furthermore, in recent months, massive swarms of locusts have been destroying crops throughout the Horn of Africa and Middle East creating an ‘unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods’, including in Yemen, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Rising food prices have also been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Remittances from Yemenis working abroad, many of whom are in the Gulf states, the UK and the US, have slowed as a result of the decrease in income due to coronavirus lockdowns. Remittances are a major source of income to Yemen, constituting 13% of GDP, and the World Bank estimates that one in ten people in Yemen rely solely on remittances to meet their basic needs. So, even where food is available to purchase, many people cannot afford to buy it. Furthermore, while more people become reliant on international aid, funding of humanitarian programmes and UN agencies is dwindling as the rest of the world also experiences the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. At a UN virtual pledging conference for Yemen on 2nd June, donor pledges of $1.35 billion fell a billion dollars short of meeting the funds needed by aid agencies.

The ongoing state of conflict in Yemen has exacerbated a worsening humanitarian crisis in the country. The destruction of infrastructure has contributed to the spread of disease outbreaks and the precarious state of healthcare, while malnutrition, partly a result of the country’s worsening economic situation, places further strain on healthcare and increases vulnerability to infectious diseases, including COVID-19. However, at a time when Yemen’s need for humanitarian assistance is escalating, assistance in the form of both remittances and humanitarian aid are in decline. More attention and critical aid funding are urgently needed to ensure that Yemen is not left to die.

Further information and fundraising appeals:

Al-Jazeera (2019) ‘Why is Yemen at war?’ (watch here)

BBC (2020) ‘Yemen Crisis: Why is there a war?’ (link)

BBC (2020) ‘Coronavirus: Five reasons why it is so bad in Yemen’ (link)

National Geographic (2018) ‘The World Has Left Yemen To Die’ (link)

New York Times (2015) ‘In Yemen, Hard Times Remain a Constant as Rebels Take Charge’ (link)

Further information about the crisis in Yemen and links to fundraisers can be found here.

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