For the past few weeks, Saudi Arabia has made it almost impossible to get food to Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world.
Yemen has been tiptoeing toward famine for the better part of three years. It's a man-made crisis born of immense political instability. (The country has been divided into pieces by warring factions backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda control portions of land, too.) And it has been made worse by climate change, rendering a dry and arid country nearly devoid of usable land and clean water.
Eighty percent of the country's population lacks reliable access to food. (That includes around 11 million children; kids under 18 make up around half of the population.) Seven million people, one out of every four Yemenis, are entirely dependent on food assistance. The United Nations has called it the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”
Save the Children predicts that 50,000 Yemeni children under 5 will die by year end. That's a toddler dead every 10 minutes.
For years, Saudi Arabia has played a dark role in Yemen's suffering. It backs the country's exiled government and has dropped thousands of bombs on military and civilian targets (including schools and hospitals) controlled by the Houthi rebels. (The United States has provided funding, logistical support and arms for this effort.) Nearly 10,000 Yemenis have been killed in the bombings.
In early November, things got worse. After the Houthis launched a missile into Saudi Arabia, the country retaliated with a near-total blockade of Yemen's seaports, airports and highways. This meant that aid groups could not ship in clean water, vital medication and food. Yemen imports at least 80 percent of its food, and the blockade pushed those 7 million people dependent on food assistance to the brink of famine.
Humanitarian groups condemned Saudi Arabia's action as inhumane. “I don't think there's any question the Saudi-led coalition, along with the Houthis and all of those involved, are using food as a weapon of war,” David Beasley, head of the United Nations' World Food Program, told CBS. “It's disgraceful.”
Finally, it seemed, there was a drop of good news. Last week, Saudi Arabia announced that it would partially lift its blockade, reopening airports and seaports controlled by its allies. Today, the Saudi-led coalition said it would allow aid deliveries to the rebel-held port of Hodeidah and Sanaa airport. That decision was set to kick in at noon Thursday. Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, wrote on Twitter that it was a “glimmer of hope.”
But aid groups say this new move, on its own, will do little to stem the impending crisis.
That's because aid groups alone simply can't get enough food, water and medicine into Yemen fast enough to feed and help the millions of people who need it. To stem a famine, USAID says, Yemen needs “large-scale imports of essential goods.” That means commercial shipments, not just supplies from the United Nations, which must go through rigorous inspections that slow delivery.
Yemenis need fuel, too, to power the water pumps that clean the country's water. Without it, diseases are spreading rapidly. Right now, the country is experiencing the worst cholera outbreak in history. Nearly 1 million people have been infected.
In a statement, International Rescue Committee Yemen country director Paolo Cernuschi explained that Saudi Arabia's latest effort isn't nearly enough.
“Even though tomorrow's reopening of ports to humanitarian traffic will ease the flow of aid, it will still leave the population of Yemen in a worse situation than they were two weeks ago before the blockade started,” he said. “Humanitarian aid alone cannot meet the needs of Yemenis who are unjustly bearing the brunt of this war. Access by commercial shipments of food and fuel must be resumed immediately, otherwise this action will do little to turn Yemen back from the brink of famine and crisis.”
The international community has also called on the United States to do more to end the Saudi blockade. But so far, the Trump administration has declined to publicly condemn the country's actions.