Hunger Warfare: Yemen's civilians starve as humanitarian aid exploited

Hunger Warfare: Yemen's civilians starve as humanitarian aid exploited
Analysis: Houthis and forces loyal to the deposed president are exploiting the worsening humanitarian situation, cutting off supplies, blocking aid, and blaming it all on the Arab coalition blockade.
6 min read
06 July, 2015
The humanitarian situation in Yemen is worsening [AFP]

The war in Yemen is entering one of its worst phases so far, as the humanitarian situation becomes a bargaining chip in the hands of the Houthis and forces loyal to deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Latest estimates by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) indicate 21.1 million Yemenis of a 26 million population - more than 80 percent - are in need of humanitarian assistance.

There are 20.4 million people who lack access to safe drinking water, 15.2 million in need of medical care, 12.9 million who do not have access to adequate nutrition, and 850,000 children below the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition.

More than a million people have been displaced from areas of conflict, with thousands fleeing to neighbouring countries and beyond.

From the outset of their campaign to overthrow the government, the Houthis adopted a strategy based on siege and starvation, occupying roads that could be used to bring in aid and relief.

They used this tactic first in Dammaj in Saada, then replicated it in Kitaf. When the Houthis overran Imran, they laid siege to Sanaa, allowing them to launch their coup in September 2014.

As the Houthis pushed further south, and an armed resistance emerged against them - followed by Saudi-led bombings - the Houthis scrambled to seize major routes and terminals, including airports and seaports.

Despite the Arab coalition blockade and airstrikes, the momentum remained with the Houthis, and soon resorted to their previous tried-and-tested methods, using the humanitarian situation as their main political chip for exploitation.

The Houthis spared no means to force the population to surrender. People could choose between dying from bullets and bombs, or dying from starvation, disease or heat.

Aden is a good example of this collective death sentence passed by the Houthis and pro-Saleh forces, who stand accused of blocking aid and preventing efforts to combat deadly diseases.

This is not to mention hunger and poverty, under the tight siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh alliance.

According to unofficial statistics by human rights groups and activists, 858 people have died in Aden in the 100 days since the start of the crisis. A further 6,879 people have been injured.

The relief committee in Aden has failed to carry out its duties

- Aref Naji, head of Al-Waddah organisation

"The United Nations must carry out its humanitarian duty in the south, especially Aden, with thousands displaced, diseases spreading fast, and civil servants not being paid there, while private businesses have come to a halt," Aref Naji, head of al-Waddah organisation, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

Naji also blamed the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi for the worsening crisis, describing it as "politically bankrupt".

"The relief committee in Aden has failed to carry out its duties, amid power and water shortages and high inflation," he added.

Taiz-based activist Abdul-Qader al-Junaid agreed.

"Collective death... takes place when the population of a certain area are denied the basics of life. This is what the Houthis and pro-Saleh forces are doing," he said.

Junaid said the Houthis and their allies cut off water supplies in Taiz by withholding diesel allocated to the water pumps. The militias also withheld fuel, cooking gas, vegetables and poultry, said Junaid.

The activist added that the militias had cut off electricity since the start of the violence. Most hospitals in Taiz have closed due to Houthi bombardment, he added.

Multiple reports by human rights groups and civil organisations suggest the Houthis are trading in humanitarian aid, including food, medicine, and fuel bound for the provinces opposed to them, selling them on the black market for profit.

Yemeni relief workers say international organisations are aware of this - yet continue to deliver aid to the Houthis.

According to the same reports, in areas such as Dhalea, Aden, Taiz, Lahj, and Abyan, the Houthis prevent all aid from entering - except via smugglers or Houthi-affiliated merchants, sometimes at exorbitant prices.

With most people having lost their incomes, save for those in pro-Houthi areas, there are fears the Houthi policy and the continuation of the conflict could lead to famine in the coming months.

Even in the eastern provinces, which have so far not seen much fighting, the humanitarian situation is tough, despite receiving aid from Oman and Saudi Arabia across the border.

"The humanitarian situation in Hadramaut is not much different than in the rest of the southern provinces, albeit many think it is is better off by comparison," Mohammad Bamakhrama, an activist and journalist, told al-Araby.

"The health situation is relatively better, although the city of al-Hajarayn has recently declared a state of emergency because of a dengue fever outbreak. Were it not for intervention by the public health authorities spraying pesticides in the regions, the entire province would have been overrun by dengue fever because of the uncollected rubbish and the flooding of sewage in the streets."

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Fuel shortages in Hadramaut have been disastrous for farmers, said Bamakhrama. A lot of the region's farmland has reverted to desert, causing food shortages.

Power shortages are also a major problem, according to the activist, with power cuts of up to 22 hours in some areas.

Transport has also ground to a halt, forcing unemployment to be driven up as businesses close down. Bamakhrama said that many have resorted to begging in desperation.

"The absence of the local authority in Hadramaut remains the biggest problem, while the mayor shelters in luxury in Riyadh," he added.

The absence of the local authority in Hadramaut remains the biggest problem, while the mayor shelters in luxury in Riyadh

- Mohammad Bamakhrama, activist

Sanaa remains in the best position in relation to access to aid access, but it is also paying a price for the war effort imposed by the Houthi-Saleh alliance.

Sanaa is also suffering from fuel shortages and deteriorating conditions affecting households and agriculture.

Deductions are also being taken from wages to finance the war effort, according to Amar al-Khoulani, an activist who spoke to al-Araby.

Khoulani said Sanaa, now largely lawless, is also suffering under the intense aerial bombardment by the Arab coalition. The Houthi-Saleh forces have deployed weapons in residential areas. The civilian death toll is thought to be high.

Local groups have also accused the Houthis of targeting and looting hospitals in Aden, Dhalea, and Taiz, in addition to cutting off water, electricity, and fuel - which cause deadly diseases to spread and kill more people than the war itself.

Observers, political parties, and local and international groups have accused the Houthis of using the entire population of Yemen as human shields.

Thousands of Yemenis are said to be detained in military targets, while civilian buildings such as hospitals, schools and mosques are used to store weapons.

The Houthis have also placed severe restrictions on the media, especially in provinces opposed to them.

As a result, the citizens have been unable to follow foreign and Yemeni media outlets based abroad, save for pro-Houthi outlets, which claim that the humanitarian situation is solely the result of the blockade imposed by the Arab coalition.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.