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Famine looms in Yemen, and UN warns of millions of deaths

HANI ALI / NURPHOTO / AFP
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Proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, blockade and cholera add up to potential disaster

A famine in Yemen will claim “millions” of lives if a Saudi blockade on the country is not lifted, a United Nations official has warned.

“It will not be like the famine that we saw in South Sudan earlier in the year, where tens of thousands of people were affected,” Mark Lowcock, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the media on Wednesday, after briefing the Security Council. “It will not be like the famine which cost 250,000 people their lives in Somalia in 2011. It will be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims.”

Lowcock, who is also the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, spoke as Saudi Arabia reacted to a missile that had been aimed at the airport outside Riyadh on Saturday from Yemen. The Kingdom announced that it would shut all land, sea, and air borders with its southern neighbor. But Saudi Arabia, which has been fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen for two and a half years, made assurances that the measure was temporary while it reviews inspection procedures. Even so, virtually all humanitarian deliveries to Yemen have been halted, including at least three United Nations airplanes full of emergency supplies, the New York Times noted Wednesday. Lowcock said that all vessels that have passed inspection by the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism should not be subjected to interference, delays to or blockages so that they can proceed to port as rapidly as possible.

According to the U.S. State Department, Houthi militant groups in the fall of 2014 allied themselves with forces loyal to Yemen’s ex-President Ali Abdallah Saleh. The Houthis, a Zaydi Shia Muslim minority, entered the capital and seized control of government institutions, sending the government of Abdo Rabo Mansour Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led Coalition of ten member states initiated an air-campaign in March 2015. The country remains deeply divided, with pockets of violent conflict ongoing.

Saudi Arabia supports the return of Hadi to power. The Yemen conflict is widely regarded as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which is predominantly a Sunni Islamic country, and Iran, which is Shia. Saudi Arabia denounced the missile attack on its capital as an Iranian “act of war.” Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, defended it, saying Saudi forces were “constantly bombing” Yemen.

“What reaction can the nation of Yemen show toward this amount of bombardment? They say that they should not use weapons? Well, you stop the bombs, and then see if you don’t get a positive reaction from the nation of Yemen,” Rouhani said.

Yemen depends on imports—amounting to up to 90% of its daily needs—and millions in the country are being kept alive by humanitarian aid, the UN said. The military conflict has seriously affected the health of Yemenis, and water and sanitation systems, it added.

“What kills people in famine is infections […] because their bodies have consumed themselves, reducing totally the ability to fight off things which a healthy person can,” Lowcock said on Wednesday.

Yemen is also facing one of the world’s worst cholera outbreaks in modern history. The World Health Organization says there have been more than 900,000 suspected cases of cholera in Yemen since late April, many of them children, and that there are expected to be 1 million cases before the end of the year, CNN reported.

humanitarian aid groups working in Yemen added their voice to Lowcock’s own plea, saying the decision to close all airports, seaports and land crossings is preventing critical humanitarian aid deliveries and commercial supplies from reaching the country and the movement of aid workers in and out of Yemen.

“The humanitarian situation in Yemen is extremely fragile and any disruption in the pipeline of critical supplies such as food, fuel and medicines has the potential to bring millions of people closer to starvation and death,” the groups said in a joint statement. “The current stock of vaccines in country will only last one month. If it is not replenished, outbreaks of communicable diseases such as polio and measles are to be expected with fatal consequences, particularly for children under five years of age and those already suffering from malnutrition.”

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