Teresa Sancristóval is an emergencies coordinator for Doctors Without Borders.
As the devastation of Yemen demonstrates, the need to end hostilities is as urgent as ever. But even if the temporary cease-fire takes hold, it will amount to little improvement in the lives of average Yemenis unless the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of vital imports, including food and fuel, is also lifted.
While an end to the bombing and fighting could allow for aid to reach combat-affected areas and for wounded civilians to be evacuated, it would only partially address the dire and increasing needs of Yemen’s civilians.
Coalition airstrikes aimed at stopping the Houthi offensive in Yemen have damaged airports, seaports, roads, bridges, water tanks, gas stations and other vital infrastructure. Houthi attacks in Aden, Al Dhale, Taiz and other cities and towns are causing enormous destruction, not to mention tremendous loss of life.
According to the United Nations, more than 1,500 people have died in the fighting and bombing as of May 6, and thousands more have been injured. Over the past month and a half, medical teams from Doctors Without Borders have treated 1,644 wounded people. One of the patients in our hospital in the northern city of Sa’adah told me that 27 members of his family were killed in airstrikes last week.
But the coalition blockade is making life even more desperate and tenuous than the bombing and fighting are. The lack of fuel is of critical concern.
Fuel is essential for life everywhere. In Yemen, it is especially crucial for ensuring the supply of water. At the best of times, Yemen has among the lowest per capita rates of water consumption in the world. In many cities, water must be drawn from deep wells, using pumps powered by electricity or diesel fuel. Without fuel, there is no water.
The water-pumping system in Sanaa has only 20 percent of the fuel necessary to supply the city’s population. We surveyed the price of water in several areas of the city between March 15 and the first week of May and found the price of water had on average more than doubled. In parts of the city, it is impossible to buy water because the gas tanks of delivery trucks are empty, too.
Everyone is taking steps to preserve precious water. Bathing and washing clothes have become luxuries. Those most in need ask for a few liters from neighbors, just to survive. We are witnessing nighttime robberies at water tanks, and fights are breaking out at supply points. Everyone fears there will soon be no water to be had at all, at any price.
In addition to the fighting, the lack of fuel prevents people from accessing medical care, whether for treating bomb-related injuries or for giving birth. Most of our patients arrive at hospitals on foot. It is virtually impossible to find a taxi, and most people can’t afford one anyway. This week, one father told me of desperately trying to locate fuel to take his daughter to the hospital. He found none. She died.
Even those who reach hospitals are not guaranteed to receive care. Many health facilities are closed because generators have no fuel. In heavily bombed Sa’adah, three out of five hospitals are closed for lack of electricity. The two main referral hospitals in the country have reduced services because power cannot be extended throughout the buildings.
I have worked frequently in Yemen over the past seven years, witnessing the war in the Sa’adah region, deadly clashes during the pro-independence demonstrations in 2010 and the battles in the capital, Sanaa, during the Arab Spring revolt. But the impact of the current crisis by far surpasses anything I saw before.
To be clear, the lack of fuel may soon cause more deaths than the bombs and the fighting.
A temporary cease-fire will not be enough. Even once a decision is made to allow sufficient quantities of fuel into the country, it will take several days before those supplies get through and before access to water and health services are reestablished.
There will be no point deploring the scale of the tragedy in Yemen in a few weeks’ time. The coalition and its allies must assume responsibility for the toll this military offensive is exacting on Yemen’s civilians now. And they must immediately lift the blockade on the essentials of life.