UN: Saudi Blockade May Lead to Biggest Famine in Decades

"More people will die if ports in Yemen do not reopen to humanitarian aid," WHO warns


Published Nov 9, 2017 6:38 PM by The Maritime Executive

Saudi Arabia declared on Sunday that it is closing all of Yemen's ports, airports and border crossings until further notice, and humanitarian groups warn that the blockade will worsen the nation's ongoing famine and its long-running cholera epidemic. 

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) was blocked from importing 250 tonnes of medical supplies via the seaport of Al-Hudaydah (or Hodeidah). WHO reported that the ship is carrying surgical kits, anaesthesia machines, infant incubator sets, water purification tablets and other relief supplies. “WHO and the other humanitarian agencies need immediate and unhindered humanitarian access to Yemen," warned World Health Organization Executive Director for Emergencies Dr. Peter Salama. “The country is still facing the world’s largest cholera outbreak and seven million people are on the brink of famine, including some two million severely malnourished children. If we can’t bring food and medical supplies into Yemen we will not be able to save people’s lives.” 

Al-Hudaydah was already under blockade by Saudi coalition naval vessels, which have retained the right to inspect merchant shipping to and from the rebel-held port. In August, U.N. Development Program country director for Yemen Auke Lootsma said that the looming famine is a construct of policy. "The current food security crisis is a man-made disaster not only resulting from decades of poverty and under-investment, but also as a war tactic through economic strangulation," he said. 

The newly announced Saudi measures closed off Yemeni ship traffic altogether for three days. Reports indicate that the coalition-controlled port of Aden may have reopened on Wednesday, but a UN spokeswoman said Thursday that it was unclear whether aid shipments were getting through. 

“We are particularly worried with the low stock of trauma kits," said WHO representative in Yemen Dr. Nevio Zagaria. “We have enough for 2,000 surgeries but because of the escalating conflict we have treated hundreds of trauma patients in the last few weeks alone. If the hostilities continue and the ports remain closed, we will not be able to perform life-saving surgeries or provide basic health care.”

Cholera is also an urgent threat: WHO reports that there have been over 900,000 reported cases since April, and at least 2100 fatalities. The aid organization said that it had been making progress in preventing further deaths, but the new restrictions could cause significant setbacks. 

The closures also have a negative effect on Yemen's tattered economy, according to reports from within the country. “Food merchants immediately doubled all their prices. Fuel, in one moment, disappeared from the markets and the price of what remains is insanely high,” Yemeni civil rights activist Baraa Shaiban told the LA Times on Thursday. 

But these effects may pale in comparison to the growing risk of famine, said UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock on Wednesday. "It will not be like the famine that we saw in South Sudan earlier in the year, where tens of thousands of people were affected. It will not be like the famine which cost 250,000 people their lives in Somalia in 2011. It will be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims," Lowcock said. 

Regional tensions motivate blockade

The government of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared the closure of Yemen's ports in retaliation for a missile attack that originated in Yemeni territory on Saturday night. Saudi forces asserted that the missile was provided to Houthi rebels by Iran, and Prince bin Salman described the alleged Iranian involvement as an "act of war against the [Saudi] kingdom."

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has broadly supported the Saudi position. “We condemn the Iranian regime's activities and stand with Saudi Arabia and all our Gulf partners against the Iranian regime's aggression and blatant violations of international law,” the White House said in a statement on Wednesday morning. “Houthi missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, enabled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, threaten regional security and undermine UN efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict." The United States provides arms, aerial refueling services and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition.