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‘Immediate responses’ are needed to save lives in Yemen, U.N. and aid groups say

A Yemeni mother holds her malnourished child as they wait for treatments in a medical center in western Yemen in November. (AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations and aid agencies have stepped up their warning about famine-like conditions in Yemen, saying the civil war is putting more and more civilians on the brink of starvation.

In a new analysis, a consortium of U.N. agencies, aid groups and experts said that a total of 16 million people, or more than half the population, was now considered “food insecure,” even when factoring in the substantial food aid being provided across Yemen.

Of those, 11 million were categorized as bring in phase 3 of a five-stage scale for hunger. Another 5 million were considered to be in phase 4, an “emergency” situation, while about 65,000 were in “catastrophe” conditions or phase 5, according to the report from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), which assesses food crises worldwide.

“For the first time, food security assessments have confirmed the worst levels of hunger in Yemen,” said the report, which was released over the weekend. “. . . Immediate responses are required to save lives and livelihoods of millions not to slide to the next worse case which is Famine.”

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The IPC said it was not ready to declare famine in Yemen, a step that would require meeting a set of conditions including at least a fifth of households suffering from extreme food shortages, a third of children under 5 afflicted by acute malnutrition and at least 2 in 10,000 people dying daily.

Scott Paul, who leads humanitarian policy at Oxfam America, said the situation is urgent nevertheless. “What we have is a complete data set saying that things are terrible and getting worse,” he said.

The announcement comes as the war in Yemen faces mounting opposition in Congress, where lawmakers have criticized American military support for the Saudi-led coalition that is battling Houthi rebels.

The Houthis, who have received some support from Iran, took over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in late 2014 and since then have been seeking to defeat local forces backed by Saudi Arabia and its ally, the United Arab Emirates.

The Houthis have also fired missiles, which Washington and Riyadh allege were supplied by Tehran, into Saudi Arabia. But the Saudi coalition has been criticized for what critics see as a heavy-handed response triggering extensive civilian casualties.

World attention on Yemen has been galvanized in recent months by the humanitarian crisis — now deemed the worst in the world — and by scrutiny of U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

In Yemen, famine-like conditions have been driven by restricted imports and rising prices but also by loss of work and displacement by the war, aid workers say. Acute malnutrition among children remains particularly high.

Sheba Crocker, vice president for humanitarian policy and practice at aid group CARE, said the report was a call to action at a moment when the war has created conditions pushing Yemen’s most vulnerable into greater deprivation. All parties to the conflict should at least pause fighting and address humanitarian need, she said, because aid alone cannot mitigate conditions created by the war.

“Humanitarian assistance is a short-term fix to much more fundamental problems,” she said.