By Joe Dyke
BEIRUT, 9 April 2015 (IRIN) - Warnings about the scale of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Yemen are becoming graver with each passing day.
On Wednesday, United Nations Special Rapporteur Chaloka Beyani predicted “massive displacement and humanitarian crisis,” and said: “The international community must prepare for a worst-case scenario.”
The following day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that countless civilians were being “willfully abandoned to misery.”
Here are four reasons why the plight of civilians in Yemen is so severe:
1. There was a crisis before this crisis
A lot of reporting on this conflict has referred to the humanitarian crisis as if it is something new. It isn’t.
Yemen was already the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country long before the present turmoil erupted. Two-thirds of the population was in need of aid, while half the 26 million population did not have access to clean water. Malnutrition was at a rate comparable with many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Late last year Saudi Arabia, angered by the takeover of the capital Sana’a by Houthi rebels, cut the purse strings that had been holding up the Yemeni economy.
“We were already extremely concerned about a fiscal crisis before,” Trond Jensen, head of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Yemen, told IRIN. “Now you have a country entering free-fall in many ways.”
Many Yemenis simply didn’t have any savings or stocks to survive as companies closed down and income dried up.
“Even before the latest crisis, Yemen’s overall humanitarian needs were on a scale similar to all nine countries of the Sahel region combined. And Yemen had almost double the number of people classified as severely food insecure,” Ban said.
2. Many fronts, few facts
The conflict is complex, with different sides backed by foreign actors and key players changing sides. This has complicated efforts to seek a negotiated settlement and led to fighting on several different fronts.
Tanks and armoured vehicles have reportedly led the rebel assault on the southern city of Aden, where Yemen’s internationally recognized president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, initially fled before seeking refuge in Saudi Arabia.
Street-by-street battles have been fought in the centre of the city as a three-week assault by the Houthis meets continued fierce resistance from Hadi-backed militias.
Meanwhile, the capital Sana’a has come under 15 days of aerial bombardment from a Saudi-led coalition, which is hoping to reinstate Hadi amid concerns that the rebels are supported by Iran.
Clashes between Houthis and Hadi loyalists have also erupted in the eastern province of Shabwa, while Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has also taken advantage of the tumult to make inroads into central Yemen.
In the mean time, Yemenis fleeing the violence find themselves trapped between these different fronts, and, with ports closed and air traffic restricted, there are few avenues of escape.
Quite how many are in need or where they are, however, remains unclear.
The UN and aid agencies have evacuated almost all their foreign staff, while those who remain are often unable to travel to assess the humanitarian situation because of the widespread insecurity.
Basic statistics to measure the situation and help prepare the response are difficult to come by. Even the death toll is a guesstimate from a number of sources giving different parameters.
The World Health Organization says 614 people died between March 19 and April 5. The Yemeni health ministry, going back further, puts the toll at more than 1,000. The Houthi rebels say 1,000 dead and 15,000 wounded. It’s the same story for the number of displaced. The UN estimates around 100,000, but other experts say the real number could be far higher. Yemen was host to more than 250,000 refugees and one million migrants even before the current conflict.
In some parts of the country, reliable information on the location of those in need is almost non-existent, said Haajir Maalim, country director at Action Against Hunger (known by its French acronym ACF). The UN and NGOs are trying to carry out an assessment but many desperate people may simply fall under the radar, he added.
What is clear is that no one is doing enough to protect civilians. In one particularly disturbing incident, an established camp for the displaced in northern Yemen was bombed – allegedly by the Saudi-led coalition – causing around 600 families to flee after dozens of civilians, including several women and children, were killed.
3. Aid delivery increasingly difficult
In almost every way possible, aid is being prevented from reaching the people who need it most.
Firstly, the violence itself is stopping aid organisations from doing their work. In Aden, fighting is so intense that people cannot even get the wounded to hospital.
Marie-Elisabeth Ingres, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Yemen, said their hospital in Aden had initially been receiving around 50 wounded people a day.
As fighting has intensified, however, that number has decreased rapidly. It is just too unsafe for people to move around, and ambulances, themselves increasingly targeted, are unable to reach the wounded.
“The last few days we have had very few people,” Ingres told IRIN on Thursday.
With most ports either under the control of Houthi rebels, directly involved in the fighting, or blockaded by the Saudi-led coalition, it is hard to get aid into Yemen by sea.
On Thursday, a letter was widely shared on social media purporting to show the agents of a ship carrying wheat complaining that it had been blocked by warships from entering port.
Many international shipping lines are now abandoning deliveries altogether.
4. Shortages of food, petrol, clean water, medical supplies
The shipping problem raises the prospect of widespread food shortages, especially as more than 90 percent of Yemen’s key grains are imported.
Despite the lack of money, the cost of goods is soaring. In Aden, for example, food prices have already risen by around 20 percent, according to the UN.
But food is only one of many essentials that civilians in Yemen fear could be running out.
“Because of acute shortage of oil we are not able to provide as much [aid],” said ACF’s Maalim. “Our teams are incapacitated. Even in areas where access is still possible, there is no fuel.”
Aid organisations are also concerned they will have a limited ability to respond if clean water and medical supplies run low.
“Water is a problem with [displaced people] in the south specifically,” Maalim said. “The fear is that if nothing is done in the coming days… there could be an outbreak of cholera, malaria and other diseases.”
Many foreign health workers, on which the system relied heavily, have already fled the violence.
“We don’t have enough medical staff, [let alone] qualified ones,” MSF’s Ingres said. “We need nurses.”
Without an unlikely return to negotiations, there is little hope of avoiding a large-scale humanitarian crisis.
Ban on Thursday reiterated his call on all parties to rejoin UN-brokered negotiations to forge an end to the crisis.
“The last thing the region and our world need is more of the chaos and crimes we have seen in Libya and Syria,” he said.