Yemen: The Worst Humanitarian Crisis in 100 Years

(Photo: BBC)

By Holly Mottram – Regular Contributor

Historical Context

For the last 5 years, Yemen has been embroiled in civil war. This began when a transition of power from the former President Ali Abdullah Salah to his vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, went south. Mr Hadi had a weak government and presence in Yemen, something the rebel anti-government group, ‘Ansah Allah’ – commonly known as Houthis, took advantage of. They attacked the northern capital of Sana’a in 2015 and have since occupied much of northern Yemen, resisting attacks from the Saudi-led coalition supporting Mr Hadi’s government. This coalition began to bomb the Houthis in Yemen in order to restore Mr Hadi’s power. He and his government have fled the country to Saudi-Arabia over fears for their safety. Their aim is to dismantle the Houthi Movement and reclaim Yemen, a choice that many Yeminis have seen the disastrous consequences of.

This plunged Yemen into a civil war that has been raging for 5 years. Both the Houthi Movement and the Saudi-led coalition are well armed with missiles, automatic weaponry, tanks and the ability to conduct drone strikes. In 2019, Saudi Arabia claimed the Houthi Movement had fired 226 ballistic missiles since 2015, with the movement obtaining these weapons from Iran. Yemen’s civil war is often seen as a proxy war between Saudi-Arabia and Iran, who support and supply the Houthis. The Houthi Movement, with Iran as their benefactor, seized Sana’a, and absorbed many of Yemen’s military resources such as scud missiles. This makes them a highly dangerous and influential group who have maintained power in northern Yemen for over 5 years. 

Humanitarian Impact

It is largely because of this continuous war that the humanitarian situation in Yemen has escalated to such a severe crisis. Prior to the war, Yemen was the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula. Since the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, the reliance of government on oil and gas to create economic revenue, and an extensive system of patronage, has led to humanitarian crises. Before the civil war, the number of ‘food insecure’ people doubled between 2009-2011, to almost 10 million Yemenis, with the rural population suffering the most. In many ways, the humanitarian crisis in modern day Yemen has been predictable and possibly preventable, with signs of trouble many years before 2020.  

A UN commissioned report found that more Yemenis have died from the side effects of the war than the fighting itself. 131,000 Yemenis have died from famine, disease (cholera and diphtheria) and lack of infrastructure such as hospitals. Much of the rural population who depend on harvest and food from the city have seen grain and fuel prices more than double in the space of a few months, meaning they must walk miles to get food for their families. It is this new and gruelling lifestyle that has changed the daily routine of war-stricken Yeminis for the past 5 years, putting immense strain on households that would otherwise not survive. 14 million men, women and children are now living in, or are at risk of, famine. The war has hit children under 5 the hardest, with the UN reporting that a child is dying every 11 minutes and 58 seconds due to famine or disease.

However, the situation has worsened exponentially in the past months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, putting further strain on an already struggling population. Cholera, diphtheria and measles epidemics have ripped through the population in the past few years, and with half of Yemen’s hospitals being destroyed in the war, the population was already suffering greatly. Covid-19 has caused many Yeminis to stay away from the few healthcare practices that remain due to fear of infection.

This has caused a spike in death rates, not only from Covid-19, but from different diseases due to a fear of getting treated in hospital. At the time of writing, coronavirus cases in Yemen have almost exceeded 1000 at 941, with deaths at 256. However, many fear the lack of testing and the large rural population will result in deaths and cases being much higher than current recorded figures. Many Yemenis live in close confines with others in makeshift camps, causing the virus to spread faster than in countries with social distancing measures. 3 million people have been displaced by the war, 1.7 million of those are children who now have nowhere to live, and all are at high risk of contracting the virus. It is because of this that many countries fear that Yemen may have the highest death toll in the world come 2021. The UN’s head of humanitarian operations predicted that it could exceed the combined total of deaths from famine, war and disease over the last 5 years – which amounts to 230,000 Yeminis. 

The United Nations Foundation has implemented many initiatives in order to prevent further deaths. The UN World Food Programme distributes over 100,000 metric tonnes of food a month, reaching around 30% of the population. WHO and UNICEF have provided over 300,000 cholera vaccines, however these measures are just not enough. Thousands die every month due to the war, and many more are lost to famine, disease and now coronavirus. Yemen’s economy and internal infrastructures simply cannot cope with the war, and although billions of dollars have been pledged to help the suffering population, the situation in Yemen continues to worsen. 

Now classified as the worst humanitarian crisis in the last 100 years, Yemen is in dire need of improved international assistance. Millions of Yemenis continue to suffer in this time of war and need medicine, food and shelter. If the war continues as it has done over the last 5 years, millions more will die of famine and disease, in a case where food and medicine could be provided. There is a call for international aid to the Yeminis who are suffering at the hands of this war, and this call must be sustained to see serious action and prevention of further harm to the Yemeni population.

Unicef Yemen Donations


19 June 2020. Yemen Crisis: Why is there a war? BBC News, Middle East

Lisa Barrington & Aziz El Yaakoubi, 2019. Yemen Houthi drones, missiles defy years of Saudi air strikes. Reuters

26 May 2020. Yemen aid lifeline near ‘breaking point’: UN Food Agency. UN News

Grace Easterly, 2018. Before 2014: Yemen’s Economy Before The War. The Yemen Peace Project

James Reinl, 2019. Yemen Death Toll to Surpass 230,000 By The End of 2019: UN Report. Middle East Eye

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