One year ago, the International Rescue Committee warned that stability in Yemen would not be possible while “more than half of the population do not know where their next meal is coming from”. This past month’s events have borne out that monition. Violence in the country, which has affected 18 of its 22 governorates and morphed into an all-out proxy war between regional powers, has brought Yemen to the brink of collapse. A humanitarian crisis of immense magnitude looms.
Yemen was already in a desperately fragile state before simmering, months-long violence in the country boiled over in March. According to UN figures, almost 16 million people – 61 percent of the total population – required humanitarian assistance, hundreds of thousands of them displaced by waves of conflict over the past decade.
More than half of the country could not access safe drinking water, and Yemen’s child malnutrition rates ranked among the world’s worst.
The IRC was providing vital health, nutrition, water and sanitation services to a quarter of a million people in the southern governorates of Aden and Abyan, chronically underdeveloped areas within a severely underdeveloped country.
For these vulnerable civilians in particular, the impact of the latest violence – of Arab coalition air strikes, and clashes between government loyalists, Houthi fighters and local and tribal militias – threatens to be catastrophic.
The World Health Organization puts the civilian death toll since March 19, at 1,080. But thousands more have been injured, and Yemen’s understaffed, under-resourced hospitals – at least five of which have been damaged in the fighting – are struggling to meet growing needs with ever-diminishing supplies.
The levels of violence and insecurity have been such that the IRC has been forced to suspend all but its most urgent lifesaving operations in the south, even as damage to public buildings, schools, factories, farmlands and power plants strips away what little remains of basic service provisions.
Electricity cuts in and out, while phone and internet networks are down in many areas. In a country that imports 90 percent of its staples, the closure and targeting by belligerents of airports, restrictions on seaport access, and a prevailing climate of banditry have seen local food prices leap four-fold in some parts, and pushed the number of food insecure people up to over 12 million.
A severe shortage of fuel supplies – essential not just for transport, but also for the pumping of scarce water – risks pushing even greater numbers into hunger.
A severe shortage of fuel supplies – essential not just for transport, but also for the pumping of scarce water – risks pushing even greater numbers into hunger. In Aden, a war-torn port city of some 800,000 people on Yemen’s southwestern coast, water shortages are chronic, businesses are folding and banks are shuttered, choking the flow of vital remittances and further stretching Yemenis’ ability to get their hands on medicine and basic goods.
Basic medical needs in the city are so great that the IRC is urgently working to find ways to get essential drugs and medical supplies into Aden’s two main hospitals, despite the severe security constraints.
The longer the conflict continues, the harder it will be to pull Yemen back from mass communal violence and Balkanisation, and to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe on the Arabian Peninsula.
The most recent UN figures suggest that more than 150,000 people have already abandoned their homes, and the organisation’s special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons has urged the international community “to prepare for massive displacement … as Yemen further descends into chaos”.
Desperate civilians are fleeing by boat to Djibouti and even troubled Somalia in search of refuge, where aid agencies are readying to receive hundreds of thousands more.
Time is running out. While Saudi Arabia has announced that it will halt air strikes on Yemen, fighting between belligerents on the ground continues unabated. All parties to the conflict should bring an immediate end to the violence and seek a political solution.
International humanitarian law – which demands full and unfettered access for aid workers and supplies, and the taking of all steps to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure – must be respected, as must human rights law.
And while Saudi Arabia has committed to fund the UN’s $274m flash appeal for Yemen, a humanitarian crisis of such scale and complexity requires significant, sustained donor support beyond that appeal’s three-month lifespan: Prior to the current crisis and the Saudi pledge to the UN’s appeal for 2015, just nine percent had been funded.
Ultimately, only long-term international commitment and development support can spare Yemen further shocks.
This latest violence has dramatically exposed the country’s vulnerability – the widely acknowledged but tragically unaddressed product of endemic poverty, poor governance, demographic pressures, environmental stress and dwindling resources.
Meeting Yemen’s massive humanitarian needs and ending its current conflict are – sadly and necessarily – just the beginning.
Mohamed Elmontassir Hussein is the International Rescue Committee’s country director for Yemen. He has worked for the IRC as a humanitarian aid worker since 2003, serving in Sudan, Iraq, Liberia, Kenya before his appointment in Yemen.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.