North Africa, West Asia

While the world was locked down, Yemen faced an apocalyptic year

With the international community preoccupied with COVID-19, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis worsened, leaving Yemenis battling war, disease, and the effects of climate change on a shrinking aid budget.

Isa Ferrero
9 December 2020
People collect water from a charity tap in Sanaa, Yemen, 3 November 2020. More than 18 million Yemenis do not have access to clean wate
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Photo by Mohammed Mohammed/ Xinhua/ PA Images. All rights reserved

For Yemen, 2020 has been an apocalyptic year, which has exceeded even the worst forecasts for a country that has in recent years been ravaged by war and humanitarian disaster.

The rapprochement between the Houthis – a political and armed movement that controls two-thirds of the population of Yemen’s population – and Saudi Arabia at the end of 2019 was viewed with some optimism, yet new clashes have since broken out across the country. Even the outbreak of COVID-19 did not stop the violence. As a result of new clashes, more than 18,600 people died between 1 January and 5 December 2020, according the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).

In a 2018 interview, Robert Malley, who led the Middle East desk of the US’s National Security Council during the Obama administration, recognised that the disastrous consequences of the military intervention by the Saudi coalition was a “very likely outcome”. He said: “it was the poorest country [Yemen], to begin with, being bombed by the wealthiest country in the region [Saudi Arabia]”.

A humanitarian disaster

Yemen has been the victim of a regional dispute, but also of Western powers. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which the European Council on Foreign Relations describes as having “access to some of the most sophisticated and expensive military technologies in the world”, has been able to use the bloodiest tactics. As Martha Mundy, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, wrote in her report, ‘The Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War’, these include a blockade on sea, land and air, which used hunger as a method of war, and indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population and food production.

It is hard to comprehend the magnitude of the crisis in Yemen: approximately one child dies every 12 minutes in the country, where 24 million people need humanitarian aid

To commit such atrocities, the Saudi coalition needed decisive logistical assistance from countries including the United States and the United Kingdom. The consequences have been brutal. According to a report from April 2019 by the Pardee Center for the United Nations Development Programme, as well as data from ACLED, the death toll in the nation since the beginning of the war far exceeds 250,000 and may even be close to 300,000.

It is hard to comprehend the magnitude of the crisis in Yemen: approximately one child dies every 12 minutes in the country, where 24 million people need humanitarian aid.

From Trump to Biden

Donald Trump’s foreign policy has repeatedly tried to undermine the humanitarian crisis in the poorest countries. Two such recent attempts were the efforts to suspend aid to Yemen in March of this year, followed by Trump’s decision, announced in May, that the US would leave the World Health Organization, which will have a disastrous effect if President-elect Joe Biden does not rejoin the organisation. The US withdrawing its funding will translate into the abandonment of millions of people who depend on these funds to survive in Yemen. These endeavours were unsurprising considering the Trump’s administration support – and its “blank cheque”, to quote President-elect Joe Biden – for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Meanwhile there are high expectations for Biden. Despite having been the vice-president under Barack Obama, who supported the war in Yemen, Biden has been pushed to "reassess" the US’s relations with Saudi Arabia, due to pressure from progressives and the unpopularity of the war. While this has given many hope, there are tough weeks ahead before Trump leaves the White House. Trump’s apparent intention to strain relations with Iran and his plans to designate the Houthis as a terrorist group may aggravate the toughest sectors of the Houthis, worsening the war and pushing away any prospect of peace.

A series of disasters

The war is not the only catastrophe to have befallen Yemen this year. Heavy rains between spring and summer caused immense damage and displaced 300,000. In fact, Yemen is a clear example of the tragic consequences of the climate crisis, the effects of which amount to more than just floods. Nearly 18 million people have no access to clean drinking water, a problem that will worsen in the future.

For Yemenis, COVID-19 was only the latest epidemic; the county has in recent years faced outbreaks of malaria, dengue and cholera. That the latter is a perfectly preventable disease that should be eradicated, reminds us that while the world was seeking vaccines for COVID-19, people in Yemen were suffering the consequences of living without clean water. Worse still, the healthcare system in Yemen has practically collapsed.

Pandemic politics

Even COVID-19 has become a political struggle, especially in the area controlled by the Houthis, who have refused to recognise cases and have spread fake news and disinformation that stigmatises those who contract the disease, meaning many do not seek treatment.

Yemen is a clear example of the tragic consequences of the climate crisis

The extent of the COVID-19 outbreak in Yemen is not currently known, but it is likely that the number of deaths in the country is much higher than the 607 deaths reported by the WHO. Satellite imagery used to estimate the burials between April and September in the port city of Aden put the excess mortality in the area at 2,100 compared to the 1,300 deaths expected.

The economy is also in ruin. Since 2015, the value of the Yemeni Rial has fallen to YER800/US$, down by more than two-thirds of its pre-war value, while the population increasingly depends on the remittances that Yemenis send from countries such as Saudi Arabia. But these payments have also been affected by the COVID-19 crisis, as many overseas workers lost their jobs, meaning the money being sent home fell dramatically.

Shrinking aid

The international community worsened a disastrous situation when it began to reduce humanitarian funds sent to Yemen, sometimes under the pretext that the Houthis were using the aid for their own interests.

This has had dire consequences, and the United Nations (UN) has called for more funds to prevent humanitarian programs from collapsing, warning that millions of children are “facing deadly hunger”. Mark Lowcock, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, warned that “the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has never been worse”, while the secretary-general, António Guterres, recently claimed that “Yemen is now in imminent danger of suffering the worst famine that the world has seen in decades”. As Lowcock said: “Yemenis are not ‘going hungry’. They are being starved.”

With one month left of 2020, less than half of the humanitarian aid requested by the UN has been sent (a further $1.75 billion is required). Meanwhile, tens of billions of dollars were spent on Western arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates during the war. This contrast invites reflection: the duty of democratic countries is to avoid unimaginable disaster. There is no time. Western governments must act now, by stopping sending arms and instead providing immediate funds to the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.

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