Millions of Lives at Risk from Saudi Blockade on Yemen, Aid Agencies Warn

A demonstration in Yemen against the Saudi blockade of the country's ports and airports
Yemenis take part in a demonstration calling for the Saudi-led coalition's blockade to be lifted, on November 13, 2017, in the rebel-held capital Sanaa. The coalition shut down Yemen's borders on November 6 in response to a missile attack by Huthi rebels that was intercepted near Riyadh airport. Photo: Mohammad Huwais, AFP

As Saudi Arabia announced on Monday that it would begin reopening ports and allowing flights to land in Yemen, aid agencies working in the country warned that millions of lives are at risk from the blockade.

The Saudi mission to the United Nations said on Sunday that the coalition fighting Houthi rebels would begin reopening the ports within 24 hours. The coalition shut down Yemen’s borders last week after intercepting a missile near Riyadh, an attack blamed on the Houthis.

“The opening of all of Yemen’s ports can’t happen soon enough. Millions of lives are at risk and any further delay in reopening sea ports, land crossings and airports for aid and commercial goods is a death sentence for millions of Yemenis,” Karl Schembri, the Middle East regional media advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told The Globe Post.

As the blockade entered its eighth day on Monday, the NRC said the World Health Organisation has had 250 metric tonnes of medical aid shipment denied entry in Yemen. Trucked water prices are up 133 percent in the capital Sana’s, and fuel costs are up 120 percent in certain areas of the country.

“It will be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades,” U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock warned last week.

The port in Aden and Wadea border crossing were reopened last Wednesday, but OCHA, the U.N. office humanitarian aid office, said on Friday that the coalition was still blocking U.N. aid deliveries.

Mr. Schembri said over 580 aid workers have been unable to travel to or from Yemen, and 23 United Nations flights and three sea trips have been denied. The Saudi coalition had said the blockade would not affect aid flights.

The blockade has also had an immediate impact on the supply of food, which was already scarce. Yemen imports at least 70 percent of its food, 90 percent of which came through the port at Hudaydah. Where food is still available, prices have increased steadily and dramatically since the war began.

“Should the blockade continue partially or in full, commercial imports will be slowed, transportation costs increased and possibly creating double taxation of goods, driving inflation and very possibly necessitating cessation of cash-based interventions for populations at high risk of famine,” Mr. Schembri said.

The NRC procures all of its items within Yemen but is a UN implementing partner for food aid, and its programs would be significantly affected by the fuel price hikes and inflation.

Mr. Schembri said some suppliers are only accepting payment in U.S. dollars. If that becomes the norm, he said, it will have devastating effects on Yemen’s already deteriorating economy.

Seven million people in Yemen were already at risk of famine before the blockade, and a resurgence in cholera has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people since April.

NRC teams on the ground “are reporting a lack of fuel in markets across Yemen and dramatic price hikes across all commodities,” Mr. Schembri said, and Yemeni and foreign staff are experiencing difficulties in getting to work, forced to drive their own vehicles or rely on public transportation.

Many Yemeni doctors and nurses and other public employees have not been paid in over a year in what was already the region’s poorest country.

In a statement released last Thursday, NRC and 22 other U.N. and aid organizations warned that the current vaccine stock will only last one month if the blockade is not lifted, leaving millions of children at risk for polio and measles.

Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in the country’s civil war in 2015 on behalf of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. According to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 13,000 civilians have been killed since the Saudi coalition began its air campaign, an estimated 60 percent from the bombardment.