Yemen: Food crisis could become famine this year, UN warns

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Child being treated for malnutrition in Sanaa.Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Half a million children in Yemen are suffering from severe acute malnutrition

The conflict-driven food crisis in Yemen could become a full-blown famine this year, the UN's humanitarian chief has warned.

Two million people need emergency food aid to survive and child malnutrition has risen 63% in a year, Stephen O'Brien told the UN Security Council.

A child under five dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes, he said.

Severe poverty, war damage, and a naval embargo by the Saudi-led coalition have all damaged food security.

About 14 million people are currently food insecure in Yemen, including 2.2m children who are acutely malnourished and nearly 500,000 suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

Mr O'Brien urged the Saudi-led coalition - which is backed by Western countries including the US and UK - to remove its no-fly zone and reopen Sanaa airport.

The blockade is having a "disproportionate impact" on civilians, he said, by stopping life-saving medication being flown in, and preventing 20,000 Yemenis accessing specialist medical treatment abroad.

Jamie McGoldrick, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, told the BBC that people were desperate and wheat supplies would last only an estimated three more months.

"Everywhere you go, you see people begging in the streets in bigger numbers, you see people rummaging through rubbish to survive," he said.

"You hear catastrophic stories of children dying because they can't get to health centres. People dying of malnutrition, people dying of preventable diseases.

"It will get worse because the problem is that the economy is in really bad shape and banking sector doesn't function."

Yemen crisis

Widows, orphans, the disabled and elderly are no longer receiving a monthly allowance from the government and 1.25 million civil servants were not receiving regular salaries, Mr O'Brien said.

"Humanitarians now fill in for collapsing public institutions, which at this scale is both beyond our capacity and our remit," he said.

Yemen has been devastated by nearly two years of war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia, and those allied to the Houthi rebel movement.

Previously dependent on imports for 90% of its staple food, the country has been hit hard by a naval embargo imposed by the Saudi-led coalition, fighting around the government-controlled port of Aden and air strikes on the rebel-held port of Hudaydah.

Half of the country's medical facilities are no longer functioning. Some have been bombed by the Saudi-led coalition, others are short of funding.

The situation in Yemen is desperate but overlooked by donors and the international community because it attracts less attention than Syria and Iraq, Mr McGoldrick said.

"The fact you don't have Yemenis washing up on the shores of Greece and Italy means they are not in the same mix as Syrian refugees" in public perceptions, he said.

He added that media attention has been low, given that only UN flights can land at the airport in the capital Sanaa and Saudi Arabia does not allow journalists on those flights.

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