Children bear the brunt as Yemeni conflict leaves millions facing famine
War, hunger and cholera combine to create biggest humanitarian crisis in the world
A boy cries as he lies on a bed of a hospital in Sana’a, Yemen, on Thursday. Photograph: Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters
A woman holds her son who is suspected of being infected with cholera at a cholera treatment centre in Sana’aon. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
The impact of war and hunger on the country’s 12.5 million young people has been compounded by what the directors of the World Health Organisation, the UN Children’s Fund and the World Food Programme described in a joint statement as “the world’s worst cholera outbreak in the midst of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”.
“This is a children’s crisis,” said Bismarck Swangin, a communication specialist for Unicef Yemen. “When you look at the number of children who are staring at death due to malnourishment, and now that is compounded by a cholera outbreak, children are not only being killed directly as a result of the conflict, but more children are at risk and could die from indirect consequences.”
Two years of conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels have taken a heavy toll on Yemen, causing widespread internal displacement and leaving millions facing famine.
Destruction to the country’s infrastructure has meant that 14.5 million people, including nearly eight million children, do not have access to clean water and sanitation. The number of cholera cases in Yemen is expected to reach 600,000 by the end of the year.
Mr Swangin said half of all suspected cases – and a quarter of all cholera-related deaths – affected children. He described horrific scenes in health clinics and hospitals, with children lying on the floor unable to move their limbs and parents standing by helplessly
.“When you ask the mothers, they just look up to the sky and say, ‘We just leave it to God’. This is all the women can say, this is how helpless the women feel,” he said.
Caroline Anning, senior conflict and humanitarian advocacy adviser for Save the Children, said she was not surprised by the finding that 80 per cent of children need humanitarian aid.
“It tallies with what we see on the ground,” she said. “The message we get is this is an off-the-scale humanitarian crisis, much bigger than what we see in Syria, much bigger than in other parts of the world, and it happens in the background almost, it doesn’t get the same amount of attention.
“What it means for children in Yemen is that there are millions of children going to bed hungry each night. They can’t go to school, there are two million children out of school … Huge numbers of children are acutely malnourished so they’re too weak to stand up.
“We’re having mothers who are carrying their acutely malnourished children to clinics on their backs, walking for hours, because they don’t have the money to pay for transport and now those same children are falling prey to the cholera epidemic that is sweeping across the country.”
Ms Anning said health clinics were drastically understaffed and undersupplied, with children being treated on the floors of clinic reception areas and up to six children sleeping in a single hospital bed.
Earlier this year, international donors pledged $2.1 billion (€1.8 billion) in humanitarian aid for Yemen. So far only one-third of the money pledged has come in, said the UN.
Restrictions on bringing aid into the country, including long delays accessing the main Hodeidah port and the closure of Sana’a airport, have further complicated the situation.