Five years in the shadows: the humanitarian disaster in Yemen
Illustration credit: Rachel Cottrell (@rachelcottrelldesign)

As the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic looms over the world, the vulnerability of the Yemeni people, already plagued by five years of war and all the possible devastation it can bring, is being pushed into the light. 

As the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) pleads for US$2.41 billion to save the lives of millions, COVID-19 proves to be exacerbating the continuous suffering of those in Yemen who have been at the mercy of food scarcity and infrastructural destruction, as well as indiscriminate attacks affecting civilians. But how did we get to this point? And how does the world stop failing the people of Yemen?

How did we get here?

The civil war in Yemen came in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring. As the spirit of the protests spread to the Yemeni people, their opposition to modifications of the constitution culminated in the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh who had ruled the country since its unification in 1990. 

His deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, became acting president but, plagued by a weakened economy, protests reignited in 2014 with the announcement of plans to increase fuel prices. These escalated and led to the Houthis – a Zaidi Shi’ite Muslim minority group who had been active in the 2011 Revolution – taking power of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in September of that year. After the group announced the fall of the current government, Hadi escaped to Saudi Arabia in January 2015, seeking sanctuary in the country which had supported him in his rise to power.


With Hadi’s escape, the Saudi-led coalition involving eight other Arab states began an air campaign dubbed Operation Decisive Storm in efforts to limit, on the face of things, the expansion of the Houthis and restore Hadi to power. However, the conflict quickly came to reflect the greater tensions in the region between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and the largely Shi’a Iran as the latter expressed support for the Houthi cause, yet objected to accusations that it supported their efforts militarily. 

Since then, the US-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) have recorded nearly 4,900 direct civilian targeting events resulting in more than 12,000 reported civilian fatalities since 2015 with the Saudi-led coalition being responsible for at least 8,000 (approximately 67%) of these fatalities. 

The United States’ and United Kingdom’s arms-dealing with Saudi Arabia implicates both countries in what the Group of International and Regional Eminent Experts on Yemen (created by the United Nations Human Rights Council) calls a “pervasive lack of accountability” for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. In the same press release, the Group urged states to “refrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict, and reminds them of their obligation to take all reasonable measures to ensure respect for international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict”. 

Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest weapons importer, spending almost 9% of its GDP in 2018 alone, and has a historic arms-dealing relationship with the United States which provided around 70% of Saudi weapons between 2014-2018. The United Kingdom is its second-largest exporter, accounting for about 10% of Saudi bought arms in this period.

A Vicious Cycle

Estimates of the number of fatalities of the conflict vary with the U.N. claiming that at least 7,508 civilians have died in direct attacks (as of September 2019) whilst ACLED place the number closer to 12,000. However, the war has caused deaths beyond those resulting from direct attacks, leading to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimating that a further 131,000 have died indirectly due to a lack of food and health services. In this same report, the UNDP estimated that 140,000 children have been lost as a result of the conflict: one child every 11 minutes and 54 seconds.

The Saudi-led coalition’s embargo placed on the country upon initial involvement in March 2015 was tightened in November 2017 following a missile strike by the Houthis directed at Riyadh. By November 2018, the tightened blockade reduced commercial imports of food through Hodeidah port – the country’s principal port on the Red Sea – by more than 55,000 metric tons a month, enough to feed 4.4 million people. These reductions are accompanied by the rising cost of food which has almost doubled since 2015. Compounding all of this is the fact that humanitarian aid is taking three times as long to reach those in desperate need in Houthi controlled northern-Yemen than when Hodeidah port was fully operational.

All of this has prompted the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to call in June 2020 for US$2.41 billion to deliver life-saving aid for the rest of the year. Of the country’s 29.8 million people, OCHA determined that 24.1 million Yemeni are currently in need – 80% of the population – whilst 14.3 million of these are in acute need of assistance.

Exacerbating the struggles of the Yemeni people is what has been called the largest cholera outbreak on record which the country has struggled to deal with as at least 278 health facilities have been damaged or destroyed during the conflict. With this, under half of the country’s medical facilities are fully operational as those remaining struggle for medicines, supplies, and healthcare workers. “Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, said the OCHA report from June 2020, “the coronavirus (COVID-19) is spreading rapidly and exacerbating the humanitarian situation”.

What happens now?

As of June 19th, Yemen has reported 909 coronavirus cases with 248 deaths, putting the case fatality rate at 27.28%. With roughly 1 in 5 of people who test positive for the virus perishing to it, as well as testing capacity being limited, OCHA includes US$180 million to build up a COVID-19 response in its call for US$2.41 billion. This would provide the country with 21 new intensive care units (ICUs), adding to 38 existing units, as well as salaries for health care workers, it aims to deploy two high capacity mobile field hospitals with nearly 100 beds, and create six labs with testing capacity. 

Five years of conflict and malnutrition have made the Yemeni people especially vulnerable to COVID-19 as the pandemic further, and unthinkably, worsens the humanitarian crisis. Compared with 2019, food imports have decreased by 12% in February, 43% in March, and 39% in April due to the pandemic. This vicious cycle suggests that there is no end in sight: the ceasefire implemented in light of the pandemic was short-lived as the Saudi-led coalition accused the Houthis of breaching such 241 times in 48 hours as the group called it a “political and media manoeuvre”.

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is far from over, and as the UN removed the Saudi-led coalition from its ‘list of shame’ for failing to protect children in the conflict, human rights groups like Human Rights Watch emphasise that “grave violations” are still occurring. 

With only 22.87% (US$0.51 billion) of the US$2.23 billion urgently needed to provide humanitarian aid until the end of the year, the Yemen Humanitarian Fund is left critically underfunded as this is the lowest amount received over the last three years and only about a fifth of the funding received at this time in 2019. Underfunding is hitting many groups, with only 40% of pledges made by international donors being paid, UNICEF is struggling to fuel water pumps and maintain critical water and sanitation infrastructure as the fear of a mass outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic looms large. At a time when sanitation is critical to prevent a mass outbreak of the pandemic in a highly vulnerable population, UNICEF reports that water, sanitation, and hygiene operations will be shut down for four of the more than eight million people who depend on it if it does not receive an additional US$30 million in funding by the end of June. 

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that if the conflict continues into 2022, 482,000 would have perished, including 331,000 children. That is one child death every 7 minutes. By 2030, the conflict would account for 1.8 million deaths with a child dying every 2 minutes and 24 seconds and the population would have lived a cumulative 220.3 million years with malnutrition. 
This is the worst humanitarian crisis that we have ever seen; the numbers of people who have perished and are at risk of the same fate are impossible to fully comprehend. As the conflict has entered its sixth year, it has shown no serious signs of loosening its grip on the lives of tens of millions of Yemenis. The world owes the people of Yemen to protect them now when they have failed to do so since 2015 or, as the head of the United Nations Refugee Agency has said, “the coronavirus may be the straw which will break the camel’s back in Yemen” and prove to be the final shadow to plunge the country into darkness forever.