Thinking Aloud: “Yemen’s Crisis”

May 22, 2015 by Darius 

As fighting continues in Yemen, the humanitarian situation grows ever more dire.  Yesterday, I saw Cédric Schweizer of the International Committee for the Red Cross discuss Yemen’s humanitarian crisis with Jon Alterman and his colleagues Steve Morrison and Kimberley Flowers of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • Alterman began by noting that even before the fighting started in Yemen, the country was on precarious footing. Yemen imports 90% of its food, and the region around the capital, Sanaa, is predicted to run out of water around 2017.  According to Flowers, in Yemen, 90% of water is used for agriculture, and 40% of that is used to grow qat, Yemen’s national stimulant.  Morrison noted that one-third of Yemenis had no access to health care before the conflict.
  • According to Schweizer, the most pressing humanitarian problem facing Yemen is a lack of fuel. Hospitals require fuel to function because the country has had no electricity for more than a month; the only electricity available comes from diesel generators.  Of perhaps even more critical importance, water is pumped from the ground using diesel pumps.  No fuel means no water.
  • Schweizer said water insecurity is reaching critical levels. Already, people are fighting for water in Sanaa, the capital, and Sanaa is not even the part of the country with the most critical shortages.  In fact, Schweizer predicted that Yemenis will start dying from lack of drinking water in one to two weeks.
  • According to Flowers, Yemen ranked 7th globally in food insecurity before the current fighting started. Now, Yemen is the most food-insecure country in the world.  She warned that soon, Yemen might be facing full-fledged famine.  Morrison added that basic goods in Yemen, including food and water, are so scarce that they have become a major object of fighting.  Armed groups seek to control these basic goods to deny them to opponents and garner goodwill among the populace by doling them out.
  • According to Morrison, there is a very small presence of international aid workers in the country because of security threats. Moreover, the Saudis themselves have no dialogue with major frontline humanitarian NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) or the International Red Cross.  As a result, there is very limited data available from which to make assessments about humanitarian needs, let alone provide for humanitarian needs.
  • Schweizer and Morrison agreed that it is imperative for Saudi Arabia to lift its blockade of Yemen and to allow the flow of food, water, and fuel back into the country. Second, the Saudis (and, to a lesser extent, the Houthi rebels) must remove restrictions on humanitarian NGOs operating in Yemen.
  • According to Schweizer, Yemenis increasingly blame Saudi air strikes for their lack of access to basic services. There is also a perception among Yemenis that the United States is behind Saudi actions and is giving the Saudis a green light to continue their campaign.

None of the panelists were optimistic about Yemen’s future.  Schweizer, who has worked in Yemen for the last two years, said that outside help will be difficult to bring about because it is necessary to obtain the permission of literally dozens of armed groups to do the smallest things in Yemen right now.  If the world doesn’t act, though, Yemen will continue its meltdown and become an even greater humanitarian catastrophe.

Morrison deplored the lack of international condemnation for the Saudi coalition’s “outrageous” violations of international humanitarian law.

Seeing the Saudis’ clear and consistent disregard for the people of Yemen, one must wonder if everyone is afraid of criticizing Saudi behavior and Saudi military adventurism.  The people of Yemen have a week, maybe two, before they start dying of thirst for lack of power to pumping stations.

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