The world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crisis is likely to get even worse before it gets better, according to a recent statement from the United Nations.
About 8.4 million of Yemen’s nearly 28 million residents are “severely food insecure and at risk of starvation.” And according to a May 24 statement from the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, that number could jump by another 10 million by the end of 2018 “if conditions do not improve.”
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A main cause of the widespread hunger in Yemen is a Saudi-led blockade of the country’s biggest port in the city of Hodeidah, according to the UN statement. Around 90% of Yemen’s food supply is imported, and 70-80% of Yemen's imports pass through Hodeidah, so the port’s functionality is crucial to the abundance and affordability of food in the country.
Yemen is in the midst of a complex civil war being fought primarily between Houthi rebels in the north and government forces in the south. (Various tribal, political, religious, and international armed factions are involved in the fighting as well.) Since March 2015, the country has also been the site of a pseudo-proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition of Arab countries that conducts deadly airstrikes on behalf of government forces, and Iran, which is believed to be sending arms to the Houthis.
Saudi Arabia first enacted the blockade of Hodeidah in March 2015 to prevent Houthi rebels from pilfering imported goods and using the port to facilitate shipments of weapons, but the blockade also severely limited the amount of food and other supplies being fed into Yemen and fueled the spread of famine.
“I am extremely concerned by recent developments in Yemen,” Lowcock said. “I call on all parties to the conflict to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and ensure that everything possible is done to protect civilians.”
In a recent military push, government forces, backed by the Saudi coalition, captured areas around Hodeidah and are poised to launch an offensive on the city any day now — prompting widespread concern throughout the UN and the rest of the international humanitarian community.
“What happens to Hodeidah is going to have huge consequences for Yemen’s war,” Adam Baron, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Independent. “There could potentially be massive destruction of the city’s facilities. People are worried about how long the port might be out of action and how long it could take to rebuild.”
It’s widely held among the international community that there is no military solution to Yemen’s civil war, and peace will only be achieved through political negotiations. In a briefing to the Security Council in April, the UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, referred to military escalations such as an attack on Hodeidah as developments that could, “in a single stroke, take peace off the table.”
Given all of this, what happens to Hodeidah in the coming days could dictate whether Yemen moves closer to peace or is plunged deeper into crisis.
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