A famine inflicting “huge loss of life” could strike at any time in Yemen, as food prices soar and the battle rages over the country’s main port, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock has warned.
Lowcock, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that by the time an imminent famine is confirmed, it would be too late to stop it.
Accelerating economic collapse has caused prices of staples to increase by 30 percent at a time many millions of Yemenis were already finding it hard to feed their families.
Meanwhile, fighting over the port of Hodeidah has limited its capacity, shut down its grain mills and closed the main road inland toward the capital, Sana’a, threatening a lifeline that has allowed aid agencies to reach eight million people and stave off famine so far this year.
“One of the things about what happens in famines is there’s a sudden collapse of which you get no notice,” Lowcock told the Guardian on the eve of a UN General Assembly meeting yesterday to discuss the Yemeni crisis. “When the collapse happens, it’s too late to do anything. There’s a huge loss of life very, very quickly. So that’s the issue we’re flagging.”
The offensive on Hodeidah is being led on the ground by forces from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with Saudi Arabian air support. They are fighting Houthi rebels who have held the port since 2014.
The UAE paused the attack at the beginning of July to allow time for peace talks, but the negotiations stalled and the offensive restarted on Sept. 7.
Before the latest offensive, Hodeidah’s population was about 600,000, but Lowcock said it was unclear how many were still in the heavily bombed port city.
UN agencies recently delivered food aid for 42,000 families in danger, which represented about a quarter of a million people, Lowcock said.
The veteran British aid official said he thought it unlikely there would be a direct assault on the city center, but was concerned about the impact of the battle on supplies reaching further inland, in a country that is 90 percent dependent on food imports.
Fewer ships are docking at Hodeidah, its grain mills have been cut off behind the shifting front lines and the highway north to Sana’a is now contested and mined, closing it to food deliveries.
Aid convoys now have to follow a more circuitous route along a much poorer road with wrecked bridges and craters from heavy bombing.
At the same time the devaluation of the rial is pushing food further out of the reach of ordinary people.
“And if you were using all your very, very meager income to buy food and you can now buy 30 percent less, you know it’s a massive hit,” Lowcock said.
The Saudi-led coalition’s widely criticized airstrikes have largely managed to avoid hitting aid operations, he said.
“There is now basically a good system [to protect] the aid operation from the military activities and we wouldn’t be able to run the enormous operation we run were it not for the fact that we have confidence that our sites, our accommodation, all our convoys, all our immunization activities, all our other activities, will be protected and respected,” Lowcock said.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have offered almost half the US$2 billion pledged for relief in Yemen, but he said their role as major donors did not stop him from speaking out about the impact of their military operations on the Yemeni population.
“The record speaks for itself on what we’ve done and I’ve made a string of statements on abuses and atrocities, directed at all sides,” Lowcock said.
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