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humanitarian disaster

Explainer: 13 million people are facing starvation in Yemen. Why?

Six years of near-constant fighting in the Gulf state have brought the already-impoverished country to its knees.

YEMEN-SANAA-CHOLERA A cholera-infected child receiving treatment in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on 6 October 2018 Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

SIX YEARS OF seemingly endless civil war has ravaged the gulf state of Yemen.

The country, already an anomaly in the context of the region given its relative oil-poverty and lack of general wealth, has been ripped asunder by the conflict between its Saudi-backed provisional government and rebel Huthis backing former authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh since 2011.

Now, the humanitarian crisis for ordinary citizens is reaching breaking point.

Some 13 million people, roughly 50% of the country’s 26.5 million population, are facing starvation as things stand, particularly in rebel-held areas like the country’s capital Sanaa.

The complexities of the conflict are summed up by who is backing who in Yemen.

The rebel Huthis, facing near-constant airstrikes by the Saudi-backed coalition of ten countries, are themselves backed by Iran, with the Saudis being an apparently key American ally at present and Iran seen as one of the United States’s key antagonists on the global stage.


The Saudi-led coalition, backed by the US, UK, and France, is leading its offensive using airstrikes and a general blockade, in support of the provisional government (based in Aden, in the south of the country), which is officially recognised by the western world.

YEMEN-SANAA-HODEIDAH-DISPLACED PEOPLE A displaced man who recently fled from the city of Hodeidah sits with his daughter inside a house in a village in western Sanaa yesterday Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

The roots of the Yemeni conflict extend from a failed transition of power between Saleh and current president-in-exile (and Saleh’s then deputy) Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi in November 2011.

In the political chaos that followed, Huthi rebels, ostensibly loyal to Saleh but who had rebelled against his own rule in the previous decade, took the opportunity to capture much of the northwest of the country, including the seat of power, the capital city Sanaa.

While Hadi was initially held captive, he eventually escaped to the southern city of Aden (where a proxy government is now based) in February 2015, before fleeing the country the following month. He has resided mostly in Riyadh in neighbouring Saudi Arabia in recent times.

While the death toll is not enormous by such conflicts’ standards, standing at roughly 10,000, particularly since the Saudi bombing campaign began in 2015, many millions have been displaced from their homes, and with no aid coming into the country its infrastructure is crumbling.

The UN now says that 13 million people are facing starvation in what it has termed potentially “the worst famine in the world in 100 years”.


It has called on the coalition to halt air strikes so that humanitarian aid might be provided (Ireland has donated €6 million over the past year to the international aid effort).

YEMEN-SANAA-HODEIDAH-DISPLACED PEOPLE A child who recently fled from Hodeidah holds bread he received from a charity group in a village in western Sanaa Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

Part of the problem is that, at present, the disaster in Yemen seems to be taking a backseat to other global events, not least the apparent assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly by Saudi forces, in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul a fortnight ago.

That event has seen the world oil market turn to turmoil with Donald Trump’s hand finally being forced regarding the Saudis and the suggestion of sanctions being put in place due to Khashoggi’s status as a sometime journalist for the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, already the poorest nation in the region, the price of food has doubled in the last month, with the currency, the Rial, in a state of total collapse.

The UN says the country is facing a full famine within the next two to three months if circumstances do not change, with two thirds of the population completely dependent on outside aid.

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