MILLIONS will die of starvation and illness if a blockade that is stopping vital humanitarian aid from reaching Yemen is not lifted, the United Nations has warned.
Seven million people in Yemen currently rely on imported food, water, and medicines — a quarter of the population — but the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which is locked in conflict with Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, is preventing much of the aid sent to the country from reaching people who need it most.
If the blockade is not lifted immediately, Yemen will fall into the worst famine the world has seen for decades, the UN’s Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, Mark Lowcock, said last week.
Saudi Arabia imposed the blockade after a ballistic missile was fired at their capital, Riyadh, by Houthi rebels last week. UN and other aid-agency flights into Yemen have been cancelled, and ships bringing in essential supplies have also been subject to long checks and delays.
Yemen is also in the grip of the world’s worst recorded cholera outbreak, which is compounding the humanitarian crisis (News, 6 October). More than 900,000 people are suspected of contracting the disease, and about 2200 have died, The Guardian reported.
“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,” Mr Lowcock said.
The World Health Organisation has backed the UN’s plea. Its executive director for emergencies, Dr Peter Salama, said that the WHO and other organisations needed “immediate and unhindered humanitarian access to Yemen”.
“If we can’t bring food and medical supplies into Yemen, we will not be able to save people’s lives,” he said.
After the imposition of the blockade, the cost of basic supplies inside Yemen surged. Fuel prices leapt 60 per cent overnight, and cooking oil is now twice as costly as before, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported.
Responding to the international criticism of the blockade, Saudi Arabia said that it would reopen some of Yemen’s ports, controlled by government forces backed by the Saudi coalition.
The main routes for aid shipments, however, including the airport in Sana’a, will remain inaccessible for aid agencies. Saudi officials said that the UN should work with them to create a new system for inspecting goods bound for Yemen.
Mr Lowcock said that any vessels that had been cleared by the UN’s own Verification and Inspection Mechanism should not be required to undergo any further checks. “This is really important, because humanitarian access through the ports was inadequate even before the measures that were announced on 6 November,” he said.