A Fundamental Example of a Humanitarian Disaster - Yemen

Apurbaa Sengupta - Research Intern, Peace and Conflict Mandate


Nestled in the southern section of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen has for long been scarred by turbulence. What has primarily characterized the region over the last few years has taken a massive humanitarian toll on the region. The country has been laboring over a civil war, is nearly fragmented by a five year long Saudi imposed blockade and yet to recuperate from the outbreak of deadly diseases like cholera and diphtheria which make frequent appearances in the region. To top this, Yemen has now been hit by a wave of Coronavirus. The lethal virus, whose genesis traces to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in China’s Wuhan province, has crippled the most developing countries such as the United States and the European Union. To think of the trail of implications it will leave behind on the developing and poor countries, is shuddering. Today, the crisis in Yemen has been labelled as the ‘worst humanitarian crisis in the world’ by the United Nations. But what has added to the plight and pathos of the civilians is the constant proxy war the region is subjected to.

Picture Credit/ Aljazeera

Yemen: a domain of instability and violence:

Understanding the conflict in Yemen and the trauma of the Yemenis takes us back to the beginning of the last decade. The first sparks of instability and unrest emerged during the 2011 Arab Spring protests which marked a series of pro-democratic movements in the entire MENA (Middle East & North Africa) region. The Arab Spring had embroiled the country in a brutal civil war that not only led to a political division in Yemen but also rendered thousands of people homeless. According to data cumulated by the International Rescue Committee, Yemen tops a list of 10 countries identified as the worst humanitarian crises around the world. The backdrop of the civil war was to terminate the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose 33 years of rule was criticised for birthing massive unemployment and government corruption. Yemen saw a prompt transition of powers to the Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and the re-emergence of the Houthi rebels- a Zaydi Shiite group who have been active in the region since 1990s. The country witnessed a fragmentation soon- on the one hand was the internationally recognised Hadi government while on the other hand was the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, both fighting for absolute control over Yemen. The fragile zone further received an upgrade when Yemen became a hot bed for proxy war between the regional neighbors on sectarian grounds. To counter the threat posed to Riyadh by Iran-backed Shiite Houthis, Saudi Arabia, a majorly Sunni province plunged into the battleground to back Hadi with weapons and bombs. The sheer lack of military enrichment led the Houthis to turn to Saleh, who, thinking of this as an opportunity to regain his lost title, befriended his erstwhile foe.

Picture Credit/ Doctors Without Borders

War, but at humanitarian cost:

Several years of instability, prolonged civil war and widespread deadly diseases have transformed the country into what the UNICEF rightly puts- a ‘living hell’ for the civilians. The bifurcation of the country in the hands of the Saudi-Emirati led coalition and Houthis has taken a massive humanitarian toll on the civilians. The war has devastated the economy, destroyed all infrastructural facilities, turned hospitals into dilapidated buildings and pushed millions of people into severe trauma, reliant solely on food aid and humanitarian assistance. Around 80% of Yemen’s population which accounts for 2.41 million people depend on humanitarian assistance for survival. Since March 2015, almost 3.65 million people have been internally displaced. Air raids and bombings executed at the behest of Saudi led coalition has caused thousands of civilian deaths over the last few years and disrupted education with schools being reduced to mere military targets. Around 18 million Yemeni civilians are facing the brunt of what the BBC considers as a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’. All their hopes for food and shelter are vested in various aid agencies who are working relentlessly to bring a new wave of hope and peace in the unstable land. The reports published by the World Health Organization highlight the difficulties associated with the poor healthcare infrastructure. Several hospital staff have been deprived of their salaries, there is acute inadequacy of medicines, essential equipments and electricity supply.

Picture Credit/ UNICEF Yemen

The UN says that almost 14 million civilians stand at the risk of famine and that one child dies every 10 minutes from severe malnutrition. Aid agencies like CARE, who work in Yemen have reported that nearly 1.8 million children suffer from malnutrition, 1.1 million pregnant and breast-feeding women are subjected to starvation and almost 3.25 million women are exposed to health risks. Since 2015, more than 19,000 Saudi-led air raids have been carried out in the poorest Arab country. Aerial bombings have crippled air, sea and land routes that make way for 80% of the supplies that ensure the survival of the Yemenis. This further disrupted the food supply chains and pushed a staggering 20 million Yemenis into food insecurity. The Yemen Data Project has revealed some 18,461 civilian casualties at the behest of Saudi and Emirati alliance. The report also marked the repercussions of the bombings by pegging the number of times that hospitals have been bombed, at 83. Nearly 17 million people, which accounts for more than half of the country’s population do not have access to clean drinking water, according to Oxfam.

A deleterious concoction of civil war and Coronavirus:

Picture Credit/ DW

Yemen, a nation which is already scarred by years of civil war and unrest, has now unveiled a new landscape of loss, with the southern city of Aden being the epicenter. The coronavirus, whose fatality has not spared this region, is only the latest in a long list of calamities concerning Yemen. The paralyzed healthcare infrastructure has not been able to put up a fight against the disease, just like its predecessors- cholera, dengue or diphtheria. The vulnerable territory has reported 1,252 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 338 deaths (as of 05th July, 2020). Lise Grande, who heads the humanitarian operations in Yemen, claimed that the death toll resulting from the pandemic could surpass the combined effects of war, famines and hunger ravaging the country over the last five years. The virus has hit Yemen at the worst time possible. The poorly developed country has only 700 ICU beds and 500 ventilators to cater to a population of 20 million in such unprecedented times. The country has extreme shortage of food supplies and air raids have made it impossible for aid agencies to import medical or food supplies to this region. The health system has in fact collapsed and the UN has been appealing to various agencies to accumulate funding to combat the spread of the virus. Spokesperson of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Jens Laerke remarked that UN and other aid agencies in Yemen are operating with the belief that massive community transmission has hit the region. In fact, Doctors without Borders and the United Nations too are convinced that the real numbers are much higher and haven’t been exposed yet due to the sheer shortage of testing ability. In a statement issued by Caroline Seguin, MSF Operations Manager for Yemen, she said that the situation in Yemen is absolutely ‘heart breaking.’ Most people have been too late in arriving at the centres and have succumbed to the virus at homes. Moreover, in the northern part of Yemen, apparent threat from the Houthis has not only made it impossible to procure supplies from aid agencies but also made it difficult for the actual numbers to surface in accordance with constant intimidation from the rebel group. Furthermore, much to the dismay of frontline workers, the UN has cut extra pay for doctors in Yemen, which has pushed the impoverished region into acute fiscal crisis. Restrictions on incoming aid from these organizations have added to the plight of civilians. The UNICEF claims that the number of people in Yemen not having access to safe water supply tops 50%. This has made sanitation protocols and washing of hands a luxury in the region. With the minimum facilities that Yemenis can afford for themselves, it is no surprise that the community transmission is uncontrolled and widespread. In fact, corresponding to the UN Secretary General Guterres’ appeal for global ceasefire, the Saudi-led coalition (SLC) continued to face challenges from Houthis in the north and separatists in the south. Further clashes between the Houthi rebels and SLC created harrowing circumstances for Yemen. The pandemic has left no stone unturned to make sure that “Yemen is heading for a catastrophe on top of a catastrophe” according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. A final implication, keeping aside humanitarian devastations is the economic paralysis. Almost $3.7 billion of the Yemeni economy is built on remittances sent from abroad. Decline in the flow of remittances has pushed civilians into acute poverty and worsened their livelihoods. Following a High Level virtual pledging event to address the Humanitarian Crisis on 2nd June, international donors pledged only $1.35 billion out of a $2.41 billion target. Moreover, despite pledges of $500 million and $225 million by the Saudi Arabia and US respectively, only 47% of the $1.35 billion had been received. Crippled health infrastructure, Saudi-led Hadi government and the international community has made the problem too massive for a fragile zone like Yemen to seek redemption from.


Yemen is now embroiled in the worst crisis- one that has not been felt worldwide ever since the end of the Cold War. The country alone is too feeble to single-handedly defeat a virus, deadly diseases and cease the prolonged civil war. Defeat of the fatal Coronavirus unequivocally calls for unity. To ensure that thousands of civilians do not fall prey to the virus and Yemen recovers from the emergency crisis, global political dialogue is imperative. What Yemen needs today is empathy and negotiations and not international planning for another air strike.


Apurbaa is a foreign policy enthusiast. She is currently pursuing her Bachelor's Degree in Political Science from Jadavpur University. She is an avid learner, works efficiently in a team environment and is determined about the work assigned to her. She takes deep interest in International Relations, Foreign Policy and Diplomacy and engages in writing and music during her free time. Apurbaa interned with CRRSS under the Conflict and Peace mandate from June 2020 - Sept 2020.

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