Yemen famine feared as starving children fight for lives in hospital

3500-1UN warns of ‘very severe needs’ as a result of civil war, and sea blockade and other measures designed aimed at Houthi rebels

Dozens of emaciated children are fighting for their lives in Yemen’s hospital wards, as fears grow that civil war and a sea blockade that has lasted for months are creating famine conditions in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country.

The UN’s humanitarian aid chief, Stephen O’Brien, described a visit to meet “very small children affected by malnutrition” in the Red Sea city of Hodeida. “It is of course absolutely devastating when you see such terrible malnutrition,” he said on Tuesday, warning of “very severe needs”.

More than half of Yemen’s 28 million people are already short of food, the UN has said, and children are particularly badly hit, with hundreds of thousands at risk of starvation.

There are 370,000 children enduring severe malnutrition that weakens their immune system, according to Unicef, and 1.5 million are going hungry. Food shortages are a long-term problem, but they have got worse in recent months. Half of children under five are stunted because of chronic malnutrition.

A sea blockade on rebel-held areas enforced by the Saudi-coalition supporting the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, stops shipments reaching most ports.

Its effects can be seen in centres such as the Thawra hospital, where parents cram waiting rooms seeking help for hungry and dying children. In April, between 10 and 20 children were brought for treatment, but the centre is now struggling with 120 a month, Reuters reported.

A woman waits to weigh her son in an intensive care unit in Sana’a.
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A woman waits to weigh her son in an intensive care unit in Sana’a. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Among them are Salem Issa, a six-year-old so emaciated he looks years younger and is now too ill to eat. “I used to feed him biscuits, but he’s sick. He won’t eat,” said his mother.

The crisis may get worse after Hadi ordered changes at the central bank. Aimed at squeezing the funds of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, the move could leave ordinary Yemenis short of cash and make food shortages worse by depriving traders of the financial cover the bank has offered.

Ibrahim Mahmoud, of Yemen’s Social Development Fund, told Reuters only an improvement in the country’s financial system and an emergency aid effort could prevent the spread of hunger.

“If there is no direct and immediate intervention on behalf of the international community and state organisations, we could be threatened by famine and a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.

Oxfam’s humanitarian policy adviser, Richard Stanforth, said: “Everything is stacked against the people on the brink of starvation in Yemen. The politicisation of the central bank and attempts by the parties in the conflict to use it as a tool to hurt one another … threaten to push the poorest over the edge.”

Hadi moved the central bank headquarters from Sana’a, the capital currently controlled by Houthi rebels, to the southern port of Aden which his government holds. He also appointed a new governor, who said the bank had no money.

“It risks leaving the salaries of more than a million Yemenis unpaid. There may be a long-term effect on the Houthis, but the immediate effect will be on normal people trying to put food on the table,” the Yemeni economic analyst Amal Nasser said.

The sea blockade and daily airstrikes, which have hit civilian targets including hospitals, are part of a campaign to push rebels out of the capital.

There have been widespread calls for an independent inquiry into the conflict, including from senior British MPs. More than a third of Saudi-led bombing raids are thought to have hit civilian sites, and human rights groups say violations are also being perpetrated by Houthi rebels. – The Guardian

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