UAE delivers a lifeline for Yemenis

The only hospital on the island of Socotra has been transformed by the Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation. What was a small health centre is now a primary-care complex saving lives every day in one of the poorest countries on the planet.

Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan visits the hospital named after him, and developed under his patronage. The only hospital on the island, it features gynaecology, obstetrics and paediatrics departments, two operating theatres and intensive-care facilities. Wam
Powered by automated translation

Lying in a hospital bed in Hadibu, the main town on the Yemeni island of Socotra, Etidal recounts how she realised something was wrong when she went into labour with her second child.

Like most Socotran women, Etidal went through her pregnancies and deliveries without ever having had a medical check-up.

Her first delivery had been smooth but this time the labour went on for hours and Etidal, too weak from the loss of blood, started to lose consciousness.

“That’s when the traditional midwife asked my husband to take me to the hospital,” says Etidal, 25. “My husband called the hospital and they sent an ambulance to my village, which is an hour’s drive away from Hadibu.”

When she arrived at the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Hospital, the obstetrician performed an emergency Caesarean section and her son was safely delivered.

If not for that hospital, Etidal could have become another number in the horrific statistics of women who die in childbirth.

Yemen has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates, with seven women a day dying of complications from pregnancy or childbirth.

Nearly all of the deaths are preventable. Most are caused by the lack of qualified healthcare workers and scarcity of medical centres in a country considered one of the poorest in the world.

The World Health Organisation says about 8.6 million Yemenis out of a population of about 25 million have no access to even basic health care.

Plugging this gap, the Sheikh Khalifa Hospital, the only one on the island, is in the forefront of saving Socotran lives, including those of its women and babies.

Previously, women who could afford treatment would fly out to other cities in Yemen to have Caesarean sections. Many others would die because they were too poor to travel.

Before it was reopened two years ago, the hospital was a small health care centre lacking many basic necessities needed for a growing population of 80,000 people.

Initially, the Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation in Abu Dhabi planned to establish an operating theatre.

But after assessing the island’s needs, plans were changed to build a larger, integrated hospital. Now it has two operating theatres, an intensive-care room and departments in gynaecology and obstetrics, paediatrics and emergency care, all with sophisticated medical equipment.

A pharmacy and a laboratory were later added, while the foundation also provided four ambulances to reach patients who lived further away.

It built a special village to house destitute widows and their children in the outskirts of the capital.

An Emirati benefactor paid for the building of the houses for 80 women, and now provides them with a monthly stipend.

Last year, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, Adviser to the UAE President, visited the island to review operations and the needs of the people.

During his three-day stay he toured the hospital and personally supervised the distribution of tonnes of medical supplies needed by the centre.

Sheikh Sultan, also supreme chairman of the Sultan bin Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Humanitarian and Scientific Foundation, or SKBN, ordered a series of infrastructure projects to alleviate the suffering of the people of Socotra.

They included a supply of clean water and help for local farmers and fishermen.

The initiatives funded by the SKBN will focus on the isolation and marginalisation of the poorest, to help them contribute to the economy.

The primary goal is to improve food security and provide economic and job opportunities through projects that will focus on promoting agriculture in the most suitable areas, and the fisheries sector.

Such infrastructure projects are vital for a country such as Yemen – one of the driest, poorest and least developed countries in the world. It ranked 140 out of 182 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index (2009).

Almost 54 per cent of Yemenis live below the poverty line, surviving on less than US$2 (Dh7.35) a day.

And almost half of the population is malnourished, and about 60 per cent of children under the age of 5 are stunted in terms of weight, height and cognitive development because of chronic malnutrition, Unicef says.

About two thirds of the population, including 80 per cent of the country’s poor, live in rural areas such as Socotra, and most of them depend on agriculture for their livelihood.

But the country’s poor natural resources cannot meet the needs of a population increasing by more than 3 per cent a year. Yemen has the world’s fourth fastest growing population, shows a recent Unicef report.

The 2014 Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen, issued by the UN, estimated the cost of Yemen’s humanitarian needs at more than US$704 million (Dh2.58 billion). The UAE has stepped in to help with Sheikh Khalifa, the President, ordering an immediate Dh500m food aid package.

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is primarily a result of poverty, underdevelopment, poor governance, environmental stress, demographic pressure and continued political instability and conflict.

The collapse of basic services following political unrest greatly contributed to the country’s dire situation.

An estimated 58 per cent of the population have been hit by the humanitarian crisis and will need some form of assistance in the coming year. This number stood at about 13.1 million people last year.

The effect of the revolution and broader violence has tripled food prices and caused shortages of fuel and cooking oil. Socotra, being one of the most neglected of all Yemeni territories, is affected the most by the rising costs.

To handle this problem, the fund plans to buy a cargo ship to take staples from mainland Yemen to the island, where food prices have been much higher because of the transport costs.

Socotra lies 380 kilometres from the southern tip of Yemen and was only opened up to the modern world after an airport was built in the main city in 1999. Until recently people lived without running water, electricity, paved roads and functioning urban infrastructure. Only recently was an asphalt road built, connecting the whole island.

Electric supply is available for the inhabitants of Hadibu for a couple of hours a day. The main economic activities on which the population of Socotra rely are raising livestock, fishing, date palm plantations and tending household gardens.

The foundation is intending through its projects to increase the people’s self-sufficiency and decrease the welfare mentality that has developed.

“Our projects at the Sheikh Sultan Foundation focus on creating self-sufficiency for the local people – not promoting dependence on outside help in them,” says Hani Al Zubaidi, a consultant with the fund.

Mr Al Zubaidi says a lack of cold storage centres is thwarting growth of the country’s fishing industry, so the foundation is building an ice factory powered by renewable energy to enable fishermen to store their catches.

Food security is another priority. Mr Al Zubaidi says the foundation is laying the groundwork for small-scale agriculture projects to produce fruit and vegetables for self-sufficiency, with a surplus to be sold in local markets.

The foundation is also distributing saplings, tractors, fertilisers and water pumps. He says it is still assessing the needs of the islanders and will launch more projects to meet them.

Another crucial issue addressed by the UAE is the lack of access to clean water, which has led to health problems and contributed to a high rate of child mortality.

For rural women, already reeling under a disproportionately large workload, collecting water is another burden. In highland and mountain areas, women and girls typically spend up to seven hours a day collecting water. As a result, girls are deprived of education.

Mohammed Al Khouri, director of the Khalifa Foundation, says that in the past couple of years it has focused on providing clean water to the rural poor.

Seven new water cisterns with an extended pipe system were installed to provide safe drinking water.

“Our main area of interest is to ensure full accessibility to clean drinking water and a proper health care infrastructure,” Mr Al Khouri says.