September has already been a rough month. Over the past week, catastrophic flooding hit Texas, an unprecedented tide of refugees entered Bangladesh, a nuclear test sent tremors across Asia and a monster hurricane ravaged the Caribbean. But amid all these crises, spare a thought for an emergency that has smoldered for years, let alone months, with no end in sight.
The conflict in Yemen, the Arab world’s most impoverished nation, is a calamity by any measure. It has raged since 2014, when rebels known as the Houthis seized the capital of Sanaa and sent the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi into flight. In 2015, a Saudi-led coalition entered the fray on Hadi’s behalf and embarked on a devastating blockade as well as a relentless campaign of airstrikes. While the Houthis have lost ground, they remain entrenched in parts of the country, including Sanaa.
The lack of a political solution has exacted a hideous cost: More than 10,000 people have been killed, more than 2 million people remain displaced in temporary camps or shelters, and close to 20 million Yemenis — that is, more than two-thirds of the country’s population — face food insecurity and need humanitarian aid. Around 7 million people are on the brink of famine, according to aid agencies.
On top of that, Yemen is suffering what’s been dubbed “the world’s worst cholera crisis,” with more than 600,000 people affected by an epidemic that flared over the summer and expanded far beyond the predictions of international organizations. The disease has killed at least 2,000 Yemenis.
My colleague Sudarsan Raghavan reported last month on the scale of the public health catastrophe: “The outbreak started to spread fast at the end of April, propelled by poor sanitation and limited access to clean water for millions of Yemenis. And although its spread has slowed in some areas, it is speeding up in other zones, infecting an estimated 5,000 people per day,” Raghavan wrote.
All this as the health system has further crumbled. Airstrikes from a Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels have destroyed or damaged more than half of Yemen’s heath facilities. A lack of funds has forced others to close.
Yemenis are confronted by a brutal war, conducted by a patchwork of opportunistic factions, and the simultaneous collapse of the country’s long-fragile state. Myriad civil servants, teachers and trained professionals find themselves out of work and desperate to provide for their families.
“I have a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a diploma in English, but certificates cannot provide me with food,” said Mohammed Hasan, whom the Financial Times encountered hawking ice cream in Sanaa. “My family is luckier than many others as I can eke out a living for them. There are many families starving to death.”
Meanwhile, aid organizations are struggling to bring in supplies through ports blockaded by the Saudi-led coalition. This has led to anger among senior figures marshaling the relief operation.
“Saudi Arabia should fund 100 percent [of the needs] of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Programme, told Reuters. “Either stop the war or fund the crisis. Option three is, do both of them.”
And then there’s the foreign dimension of the conflict. The Saudi campaign is fueled by weapons it purchased from governments in the West, including those of Britain and the United States.
“This is no accidental disaster — it is a man-made disaster driven by national and international politics,” Katy Wright, the head of advocacy for Oxfam, said about the cholera crisis in a statement last month. “In backing this war with billions of dollars of arms sales and military support the U.S. and the U.K. are complicit in the suffering of millions of people in Yemen.”
The Saudis accuse their regional nemesis Iran of propping up the Houthis, but critics contend that the charge both overplays Tehran’s hand in Yemen and obscures the role of other forces, including militias loyal to the ousted long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The conflict, they say, has always been a turf war of competing fiefdoms.
This week, a report from the United Nation’s human rights office found that among the 5,144 civilian casualties suffered since March 2015 — when Saudi Arabia entered the war — at least 3,233 of the deaths, including those of more than 1,000 children, can be attributed to coalition forces.
“The reticence of the international community in demanding justice for the victims of the conflict in Yemen is shameful, and in many ways is contributing to the continuing horror,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said earlier this week, urging all sides to allow an independent investigation into alleged violations and human rights abuses.
Stung by the U.N. official’s comments, Saudi authorities dismissed the report’s claims.
“We invited the United Nations to come and discuss it with us. We invited the United Nations to come and take a look at how we choose our targets and how we conduct operations. And none of them came,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Sky News. He added that his country’s war effort was proving a success and the onus was on the Houthis to come to terms.
“People look at this and say this has gone on too long. From our perspective every day is too long, but it’s not up to us. It’s up the Houthis,” al-Jubeir said.
But Houthi capitulation is hardly in the cards. “The sad irony of the conflict is that each of the warring parties appears to believe that time is on their side,” wrote Michael Dempsey at the Council on Foreign Relations. “As far as the people of Yemen are concerned, though, time is running out.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally featured in Ishan Tharoor’s Today’s Worldview daily newsletter for The Washington Post. Please be sure to sign up for Tharoor‘s newsletter to receive his smart analysis, ideas, and opinions.