Conflict, Hunger and Disease in Yemen
Yemen on the brink of famine
Yemen’s civil war, now in its fourth year, shows no signs of abating and is driving residents of the Middle East’s poorest country deeper into misery.
Already struggling to control communicable disease and chronic malnutrition before the conflict broke out in March 2015, Yemen today has arguably become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, with more than 75 percent of the population of 29.3 million people in need of aid, a quarter of the population living on the brink of famine and an estimated 3.3 million children and nursing mothers acutely malnourished.
The country endured the world’s largest cholera outbreak in recent memory last year, and the outbreak is accelerating once again. Roughly 10,000 suspected cases of cholera per week were being reported countrywide in September 2018, nearly double the average weekly cases from January to August. Fighting in and around the country’s main port city of al-Hudaydah has worsened existing shortages of food, fuel and medicines—most of which are imported—while a sharp drop in the value of the Yemeni Rial has pushed the cost of those critical commodities that are available beyond the reach of many.
In this challenging environment, International Medical Corps serves areas of Yemen with some of the most pressing humanitarian needs, even though widespread damage to existing infrastructure has restricted access to many areas. More than half of Yemen’s health facilities no longer function, and with the government unable to support it, the country’s health system is on the verge of collapse. With no sign of an end to the violence, humanitarian conditions in Yemen are expected only to deteriorate further.
Why are hunger and malnutrition major issues in Yemen?
Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Historically, it has endured long years of weak, often divided governments that have been unable to provide a secure, politically stable environment or basic social services, such as healthcare, for their people. In addition, Yemen grows little of its own food, relying chiefly on imports. But the cost of this food is simply out of reach for many Yemenis—especially in rural areas, where bread and rice are the mainstays, supplemented occasionally with vegetables and very rarely with meat. Even in the best of times, poor roads, clogged ports, little government authority, weak purchasing power and only nascent distribution systems combine to make delivering imported food to rural areas a challenge.
Why don’t we hear more about Yemen if conditions are so desperate?
Yemen lies at the outer fringes of the Middle East region. It is remote, sharing land borders with only two countries: Saudi Arabia to the north and the Sultanate of Oman to the east. It is accessible by air via just one commercial carrier or by sea from Djibouti. Consequently, Yemen is both very hard for journalists to reach and extremely dangerous for them to tell the story of Yemen’s tragedy. And unlike Syria, where another Middle East civil war rages on, few of Yemen’s citizens can afford the journey to safety in Europe or elsewhere in the West. Although Yemen’s population of more than 29 million is larger than Syria’s pre-war figure of 22 million, fewer than 200,000 Yemenis are officially listed as refugees, compared to about 5.6 million Syrians.
Why is Yemen vulnerable to cholera and why have the outbreaks been so virulent?
Cholera is endemic to Yemen, but it has been able to take hold in recent years because of the ongoing conflict. More than half of Yemen’s population of 29.3 million now lacks access to proper healthcare and to clean water, sanitation and hygiene services, which leaves Yemeni’s vulnerable to communicable disease. And as the conflict wanes on, the ever deepening economic crisis has caused many more people go hungry—and malnourished children, women and men are much more susceptible to illness. In addition, Yemen’s civil war has further eroded the already limited capacity of the country’s healthcare system to respond to public health emergencies.