2 million children in Yemen are at risk of dying of starvation
Unicef urgently needs funds to continue its work supporting children who are in catastrophic crisis
Fatma with her baby Saleh, who is receiving treatments for severe acute malnutrition at a Unicef supported hospital in Aden. Photograph: Unicef/Yemen/2020
Yemen is a living hell for children. Five years of civil war have devastated the Middle Eastern country. Not alone do children there face the daily terror of armed conflict but the additional threats to life of extreme poverty, ill health and malnutrition.
Thousands of children have already died of starvation. Millions more are at risk of doing so.
Sara Beysolow Nyanti, UNICEF’s Representative in Yemen, sums up the situation starkly: “Being a child in Yemen is horrific.”
“There are 12 million children in the Yemen who have nowhere else to turn but to us, but all they know is that we are failing them because nothing is changing for them,” she says.
No child should have to endure this. Unicef is trying to help but is perilously close to running out of funds. For the children of Yemen, any lack of funding is now a clear matter of life and death.
Unicef is the United Nations Children’s Fund, the UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian aid to children worldwide.
Right now, Yemen represents, sadly, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It has 28 million citizens, more than 24 million of whom are in need of humanitarian assistance. More than 12 million of those are children.
Their needs are severe. Right now some two million Yemeni children under the age of five require treatment for acute malnutrition.
But now Covid-19 has arrived, decimating services in the country’s already beleaguered healthcare system. The rapid spread of Covid-19 is described by Unicef as “an emergency within an emergency”.
As we in Ireland know, washing hands with soap and water is an effective tool known to help curb its spread. But what if you have no soap? What if you have no water?
Unless Unicef can maintain its programmes, that is exactly the appalling outlook Yemen’s children are facing.
Yemen is an arid country. Access to water depends on bore holes drilled deep into the ground and pumping stations that draw it up. These require fuel to operate, which is expensive.
Only half of the country’s already meagre health facilities were functioning before the pandemic was declared. Now, many of those remaining facilities have been given over entirely to the care of those suffering from Covid-19, further restricting access to healthcare for the country’s children.
Where they do exist, health facilities lack basic operational equipment such as masks and gloves, oxygen and other supplies to treat the coronavirus.
But it isn’t just the country’s healthcare facilities that are damaged. School closures have disrupted education, further diminishing the quality of life for the country’s children.
“The children have no access to school and no access to distance or online learning. Many children in other developing countries face the same problem, but in addition, children in Yemen can’t even go out to play. Recently, we have lost 12 children to airstrikes, and that is just the number that we know of,” says Beysolow Nyanti.
The political conflict playing out over their heads is meaningless to the children she works with. “They don’t understand the bigger issues, they just know they can’t go out and play.”
The situation these children face is every parent’s nightmare. “Almost half a million children in Yemen are malnourished and lack access to therapeutic nutrition services because many of the hospitals that are left have been turned into Covid-19 isolation centres,” she says.
The choices facing older children are horrendous too. “As a coping mechanism, many are recruited into fighting forces as child labour. At any time there are around 30 active war fronts in Yemen.”
For children at risk from violence, poverty and malnutrition, the situation is now “catastrophic”, she said. It’s also “extremely frightening for them.”
The pandemic has compounded the issue. “We don’t even know which children have Covid-19, where they are. We just don’t know because we already had a collapsing healthcare system,” she says.
Yemen’s humanitarian needs have never been more acute, or funding more constrained, Unicef has warned. The agency is one of the few humanitarian organisations still operating there, such are the dangers it poses.
Staff like Beysolow Nyanti are working around the clock to help provide life-saving supplies such as clean water, emergency food and medicines to stave off catastrophe for the children of Yemen.
Their needs are urgent. “They need water. Water is life,” she explains.
Without it, these children are at immediate risk of life-threatening diseases such as malaria and cholera, as well as Covid-19, from which malnutrition leaves their immune systems already dangerously compromised.
Unicef has already made urgent appeals for the millions in funding it needs to sustain essential basic services for children this year, but to date has received just 38 per cent of that.
“The problem with funding is fundamentally that, for the first time ever, every country has competing priorities for their own country, because everybody is dealing with Covid-19,” Beysolow Nyanti explains, urging both individuals and nations to “dig deep” to help.
The most immediate and critical funding gap is for emergency water, sanitation and hygiene operations, known as WASH operations. Some four million people in Yemen depend directly on Unicef for access to water, and half of these are children.
Unless Unicef receives $30 million immediately, these WASH services cannot be maintained and will start shutting down.
Without the funding, Unicef can’t provide the fuel required to operate the water pumping stations, or to de-sludge the sewage tanks to reduce the risk of cholera, or to help maintain the country’s crumbling water and sanitation infrastructure.
It won’t be able to deliver water tankers to communities or provide families with soap. That will leave millions more children on the verge of death in a country that was already in the throes of a cholera and diarrhoea epidemic.
That was the frightening prospect facing the Yemen even before the pandemic arrived. But Unicef’s Covid-19 response is also severely underfunded, currently running at just 10 per cent of what it needs.
It’s why the agency’s staff has been working tirelessly, in the most difficult circumstances, training and equipping frontline workers on infection prevention and control, supporting mother and child health services and providing health facilities with testing kits, oxygen concentrators, ventilators and personal protective equipment such as masks, face shields and gowns.
Without funding it cannot continue to help protect people in the Yemen, including frontline workers and health staff, or provide safe water and sanitation services for 900,000 people already in Covid-19 isolation and quarantine centres.
Yemen is experiencing its worst crisis ever seen, and your support is urgently needed. Help children in danger and donate now.
For Beysolow Nyanti, whose work is devoted to supporting the health and wellbeing of the children of Yemen, it’s an unthinkable prospect. “Children will die if they don’t get these services,” she states.
Like many people working in the Covid-19 era, she has gotten used to Zoom meetings in recent months. Last week she had one with children from across Yemen. It worried her greatly. “They talked about the fact that they feel there is no one listening to them,” she said. “These children feel forgotten.”
Mazen has been helped by Unicef, thanks to contributions which are making a difference to the children of Yemen
Toddler Mazen struggled almost since his birth in Sana’a, the capital city of war-torn Yemen. Not alone was he born into a humanitarian crisis, but to a healthcare system on the brink of collapse.
When he unexpectedly stopped breastfeeding, his health began to deteriorate fast. By the time his mother could get him to a still functioning hospital, he was so acutely malnourished that he needed specialist care.
Lack of nutrition had led to a skin disease, as well as to eye damage so severe that it requires surgery to save his eye.
But thanks to the kindness of Unicef donors, the agency was able to provide special therapeutic food for Mazen, and training in breast feeding practices for his mother, which enabled her to resume breast feeding. As a result Mazen is now well on the road to recovery.
Right now there are over 360,000 children, just like Mazen, who are suffering from severe acute malnutrition right across Yemen.
You can save children’s lives in Yemen today by providing life-saving supplies. Emergency food, safe clean water to drink, and medicine for treatment – it’s what they need to survive. Please go to unicef.ie to support this emergency appeal.