UN warns of impending famine in Yemen

Raging conflict, difficulty in importing food supplies and lack of funds creating 'perfect storm', WFP chief says.

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CAIRO // The war in Yemen has pushed the country to the brink of famine, with millions of hungry women and children facing possible starvation, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

“All the signs that will lead us to the qualifiable definition of famine are in fact developing in front of our eyes,” said Ertharin Cousin, head of the UN’s World Food Programme.

“If we do not receive the additional access that is required to meet the needs of those who are affected by this ongoing conflict, if we cannot support the commercial markets by ensuring that the ports are open and providing food to ensure that those who have resources can buy the food that is necessary, and if we do not see increased donor support, we are facing the perfect storm in Yemen,” she said in Cairo following a three-day trip to Yemen.

Her warning came as the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross said Yemen had suffered as much destruction in five months as Syria had seen in five years.

The conflict pits Iran-backed Houthi rebels and allied renegade military units against fighters loyal to the exiled President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi who are backed by a Saudi-led coalition providing air support, arms and training.

The WFP said it had reached 3.5 million people with food supplies since the conflict erupted in March, “but fighting makes deliveries difficult and dangerous”.

A WFP report estimated the number of food insecure people in Yemen at almost 13 million, including six million deemed “severely food insecure and in urgent need of external assistance”.

The agency made an urgent plea for donations for an emergency food supply operation next month expected to cost about $320 million (Dh1.17 billion).

“The damage to Yemen’s next generation may become irreversible if we don’t reach children quickly with the right food at the right time,” Ms Cousin said. “We must act now before it is too late.”

Separately, the UN children’s fund said on Wednesday that an average of eight children were killed or maimed each day in the fighting.

Nearly 400 children have been killed and more than 600 others injured in the past four months, Unicef said.

“Disrupted health services, increased levels of child malnutrition, closed schools and higher numbers of children recruited by fighting groups are among the effects of the conflict now ravaging the Arab world’s poorest country,” it said.

“Children are being killed by bombs or bullets and those that survive face the growing threat of disease and malnutrition,” said the Unicef representative in Yemen, Julien Harneis.

The head of the Red Cross meanwhile described conditions in Yemen as “catastrophic”.

“Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years,” Peter Maurer said after his visit to the country last week.

“The firepower with which this war is fought on the ground and in the air is causing more suffering than in other societies which are stronger and where infrastructures are better off and people are wealthier and have reserves and can escape,” Mr Maurer said at the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva.

In the latest fighting, Houthi rebels attacked pro-government forces for a second consecutive day on Wednesday after weeks of retreating.

Five pro-government fighters were killed in the rebel attack on the Labouza military base, said Qayed Nasser, a spokesman for the anti-rebel forces in Lahj province. The attack was repelled with support from airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition, he said.

Associated Press and Agence France-Presse