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War in Yemen: UN needs billions to avert famine

A boy who suffers from malnutrition lies on a bed at a hospital in Hodeidah, Yemen. Even before the war, Hodeidah was one of the poorest cities in Yemen, the Arab world's most impoverished nation. Photo: AP

Geneva: The United Nations said on Wednesday that 12 million people in Yemen faced the threat of famine brought on by two years of civil war and the situation was rapidly deteriorating.

It appealed for $US2.1 billion ($2.7 billion) to provide food and other life-saving aid, saying that Yemen’s economy and institutions are collapsing and its infrastructure has been devastated.

“If there is no immediate action, and despite the ongoing humanitarian efforts, famine is now a real possibility for 2017. Malnutrition is rife and rising at an alarming rate,” UN emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien said.

“A staggering 7.3 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from,” he said.

Yemen has been divided by nearly two years of civil war that pits the Iran-allied Houthi group against a Western-backed Sunni Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia that is carrying out air strikes. At least 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

Nearly 3.3 million people – including 2.1 million children – are acutely malnourished, UN figures show. They include 460,000 children under age five with the worst form of malnutrition who risk dying of pneumonia or diarrhoeal disease.

About 55 per cent of Yemen’s medical facilities do not function and the health ministry has no operational budget, said Jamie McGoldrick, UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen.

“Many of the people never make it to the feeding centres or the hospitals because they can’t afford the transport,” he said.

Many people die silent and unrecorded deaths, they die at home, they are buried before they are ever recorded.”

In all, nearly 19 million Yemenis – more than two-thirds of the population – need assistance and protection, the United Nations said.

“Ongoing air strikes and fighting continue to inflict heavy casualties, damage public and private infrastructure, and impede delivery of humanitarian assistance,” it said.

“The Yemeni economy is being wilfully destroyed,” it added, saying that ports, roads, bridges, factories and markets have been hit.

Yemen’s main port at Hodeida is badly damaged and lacks cranes for offloading, leaving 30 ships offshore at any time and delaying deliveries, McGoldrick said. The Saudi-led coalition imposes strict restrictions on the ports which it controls.

An estimated 63,000 Yemeni children died last year of preventable causes often linked to malnutrition, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said last week.

“In Yemen, if bombs don’t kill you, a slow and painful death by starvation is now an increasing threat,” Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement.

The US is a partner in the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni civil war at the same time as it is fighting its own battles in the country against al-Qaeda’s Yemeni brach, the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Last month, newly installed US President Donald Trump authorised a commando raid on the home of a senior collaborator in the mountains of central Yemen.

The raid killed at least 30 people, including civilians, children and a US Navy SEAL, Chief Petty Officer William Owens.