"A forgotten crisis": Mass starvation in Yemen as U.S.-backed Saudi war & blockade push millions to brink of famine

14 million Yemenis — over half the population — face hunger, the U.N. warns, saying "the numbers are staggering"

Published January 29, 2016 6:15PM (EST)

A Yemeni girl cries at a school sheltering people displaced by Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen's Saada province, in the capital Sanaa on August 27, 2015  (Reuters)
A Yemeni girl cries at a school sheltering people displaced by Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen's Saada province, in the capital Sanaa on August 27, 2015 (Reuters)

Mass starvation is ongoing in Yemen, the United Nations warns, calling it a "forgotten crisis." The poorest country in the Middle East may be on the brink of famine, while it faces bombing and a blockade from a Saudi-led coalition, backed by the U.S. and the U.K.

Approximately 14.4 million Yemenis — more than half of the population of the country — are food insecure, according to a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, also known as the FAO.

The U.N. estimates there are 25 million people in Yemen. This means at least 58 percent of the population is food insecure.

Hunger is growing. In the seven months since June 2015, the number of food insecure Yemenis has grown by 12 percent. Since late 2014, the number has grown by 36 percent.

"The numbers are staggering," remarked Etienne Peterschmitt, FAO deputy representative and emergency response team leader in Yemen.

Peterschmitt called the mass starvation "a forgotten crisis, with millions of people in urgent need across the country."

The FAO says "ongoing conflict and import restrictions have reduced the availability of essential foods and sent prices soaring."

What the FAO does not mention in its report, however, is that these import restrictions are a result of the Saudi blockade on Yemen. Since the war broke out in March, with the backing of the U.S. and U.K., Saudi Arabia has imposed a naval, land and air blockade on Yemen — which imports more than 90 percent of its staple foods.

Because of the Saudi-led blockade and war, for more than six months, humanitarian organizations have warned that 80 percent of the Yemeni population, 21 million people, desperately need food, water, medical supplies and fuel. The U.N. has insisted for over half a year that Yemenis are enduring a "humanitarian catastrophe."

Salon sent the FAO multiple requests for comment, inquiring as to why the agency did not directly acknowledge the Saudi blockade, yet did not receive a response.

The U.S. media and government have devoted very little attention to the Saudi blockade, and the U.N. has not mentioned it much in its reports on Yemen.

Journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous has warned that "Yemen is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis."

In December, the U.N. indicated Yemen may be facing an impending famine. The World Food Program noted that food insecurity is at "emergency" levels, just one step below famine, in almost half of the country.

"Food insecurity and malnutrition are becoming highly critical," said Salah Elhajj Hassan, FAO representative in Yemen.

The prices of food, fuel and other supplies have soared since the Saudi-led coalition began bombing in March.

Yemen is still a largely agricultural country. Farming, livestock rearing and fishing employ half of Yemen's workers, and serve as the main sources of livelihoods for roughly two-thirds of Yemenis. The blockade has prevented workers from accessing materials like seeds and fertilizers. These import restrictions under the blockade, the FAO indicates, have "severely reduced crop production," causing "dramatic losses to the agriculture sector."

This is "exacerbating the immense needs already present in Yemen prior to the current conflict," the U.N. agency said.

At the same time, just 4 percent of Yemen's land is arable, the U.N. estimates, and only a fraction of that land is currently used for food production.

Yemen is also one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. Most Yemenis have access to less than 5 percent of the global average for water.

The war on the poorest country in the Middle East has also exacted an enormous toll on Yemenis. More than 6,000 people have been killed, in a conservative estimate, almost half of whom have been civilians, according to the U.N.

An additional 2.3 million Yemenis are internally displaced, an increase of more than 400 percent since January 2015.

Saudi forces, who are trained and assisted by the American and British military, have been constantly accused by human rights organizations of committing war crimes. The Saudi-led coalition has bombed numerous hospitals and medical workers, weddings, civilian neighborhoods, a refugee camp and an Oxfam aid warehouse.

The Obama administration has sold more than $100 billion in weapons to the Saudi absolute monarchy in the past five years. The Saudi military has dropped U.S.-made cluster munitions, which are banned in 118 countries, on civilian neighborhoods in Yemen, in what Human Rights Watch called "outrageous" and a "war crime."

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By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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