Saudi Arabia‘s decision to ease its blockade on Yemen does not go far enough, with aid and human rights groups warning the spectre of mass famine will continue to loom over the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country.
The Kingdom said it will ease its blockade on rebel-held parts of the country from Thursday, and allow “urgent humanitarian and relief materials” to pass through the Red Sea port of Hodeidah and the capital’s Sanaa international airport.
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Saudi Arabia, which has been conducting an air campaign in Yemen since 2015, intensified its embargo on the country on November 5, closing all of Yemen’s land, sea and air ports after Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile towards the capital, Riyadh.
The Kingdom said the blockade was a necessary precaution aimed at preventing weapons being smuggled into Yemen by Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran.
Iran has repeatedly rejected allegations of arming the Houthis, calling them “malicious, irresponsible, destructive and provocative”.
Prices are ridiculously high. Petrol, cooking gas, everything has shot up. The Saudis are not just blockading the Houthis, they're blockading us, they're blockading every man, woman and child.
Save the Children’s Caroline Anning told Al Jazeera that any opening for humanitarian agencies was welcome, but it “wouldn’t be enough to avert a potential famine”.
“We’re still waiting to see exactly what this announcement means,” she said.
Saudi Arabia has not specified when or if it would ease a blockade on commercial access.
“At the moment, we welcome any opportunity to get life-saving aid into Yemen. However, the reality is it shouldn’t have taken more than two weeks of an arbitrary blockade for this to happen,” Anning said.
“During this time the humanitarian situation has worsened.
“Aid agencies such as ours and the UN are only able to provide a fraction of the food, fuel and water that is needed. It’s imperative that commercial supplies are able to get in as well.”
Yemen’s southern port city of Aden, which is under the Saudi coalition’s control, re-opened its port for aid deliveries and commercial trade last week, but aid agencies say it lacks the means to transport large volumes of goods to northern areas.
According to UN estimates, 71 percent of the nearly 19 million Yemenis who need assistance are in Houthi controlled areas.
The strategic seaport of Hodeidah, about 175km west of Sanaa, used to be a key conduit for much-needed food and medicine imports prior to Houthi rebels taking the city over.
Before the war, Yemen imported around 90 percent of its wheat and all of its rice to feed its population of about 28 million, and around 70 percent of these imports passed through Hodeidah.
But imports have since dwindled, leaving millions unsure of when their next meal will come.
‘No cause for celebration’
“Prices are continuing to go up, with families having to choose between buying clean water for their children or buying bread that day,” Anning told Al Jazeera.
“We’re facing a critical situation where there’s only a small amount of food supplies left in warehouses and they’ll only last the next 4-8 weeks.”
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), a USAID-funded organisation that monitors food security issues, recently reported that “even if throughput [through Aden] improved significantly, famine will remain likely … [as] very large shortfalls in the availability of food, fuel, and medical supplies cannot be met by humanitarian assistance alone”.
Paolo Cernuschi, the Yemen director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a New-York based relief group, said the easing of access restrictions was “no cause for celebration”.
“Even though tomorrow’s reopening of ports to humanitarian traffic will ease the flow of aid, it will still leave the population of Yemen in a worse situation than they were two weeks ago before the blockade started,” he said.
“Humanitarian aid alone cannot meet the needs of Yemenis who are unjustly bearing the brunt of this war. Access by commercial shipments of food and fuel must be resumed immediately, otherwise this action will do little to turn Yemen back from the brink of famine and crisis.”
‘Full unfettered access’
Amnesty’s Yemen researcher Rasha Mohamed told Al Jazeera that humanitarian imports alone did not meet the needs of the civilian population.
“Yemen needs monthly food imports of approximately 350,000 metric tonnes for survival, of which humanitarian imports are about 75,000 metric tonnes,” she said.
“This is far from sufficient to meet needs of the population. Full unfettered access for people and goods, commercial as well as humanitarian, is needed.”
Yemen has been devastated by more than two and a half years of war, after Houthi rebels, believed to be backed by Iran, captured Sanaa and overthrew President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government.
A Saudi-led coalition was formed in March 2015 to fight the Houthi rebels and army troops allied with them.
The coalition of Sunni Arab states has so far, failed to dislodge the fighters from Sanaa and their northern strongholds.
According to the UN, at least 10,000 people, more than half of them civilians have been killed, and millions forced to seek food assistance.
‘Everyone is suffering’
“The price of flour has more than doubled since the start of the blockade,” Ayham Alghopari, a student at Sanaa University’s faculty of dentistry, told Al Jazeera.
“You can no longer buy car petrol on the open market, the price has more than doubled. It used to cost YR4,000 ($16) to fill up a small car; it now costs YR9,000 ($35).”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says the war has had a debilitating effect on the civilian population, with about 2.5 million people having no access to clean water and one in every 12 being severely malnourished.
“I can’t give the most simplest of things to my family,” Ahmed Alsharabi, a 40-year-old maths teacher in Sanaa, told Al Jazeera.
“Prices are ridiculously high. Petrol, cooking gas, everything has shot up. The Saudis are not just blockading the Houthis, they’re blockading us, they’re blockading every man, woman and child.”
Since the start of the war, the Saudi-led coalition has been repeatedly accused of failing to mitigate the impact of its operations on civilians.
In August last year, a US official said the Arab coalition had deliberately bombed a main bridge linking Hodeidah to Sanaa, despite it being on a US ‘no-strike list.’
The Yemen Data Project, which uses a range of open-source data to document the number of airstrikes, says just over one in three air raids between June and August this year hit civilian sites such as schools, hospitals, markets, mosques and economic infrastructure.
According to the survey conducted by a group of the academics and human rights organisers, there were at least 427 attacks on military targets, while another 186 hit civilian objects.
Follow Al Jazeera’s Faisal Edroos on Twitter: @FaisalEdroos