Yemen at tipping point as famine threatens millions

Aid agencies need urgent access and funding to avert human tragedy in Yemen, says global head of Save the Children

Two years of civil war has left more than 17 million people in Yemen facing severe food insecurity, the head of a global children’s charity has warned, with urgent funding needed to avert the risk of famine.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO of Save the Children International, said the Arab world’s poorest state faces a “desperate situation”, compounded by the inability of aid agencies to bring supplies into the country.

“The situation is graver than we have ever seen,” said Thorning-Schmidt. “We are witnessing a famine. We are seeing hospitals running out of supplies, the health system collapsing, widespread malnutrition: the world needs to sit up and take notice of what is happening.”

“Schools should be sacrosanct. This is where children come, despite war, and try hard to create a future”Yemen has been divided by two years of civil war that has devastated its economy, blocked the food imports its population depends on, and left millions on the brink of starvation. At least 10,000 people have been killed in fighting between Houthi rebels and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition that supports President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s ousted government.

More than 80 per cent of people in the Arab country are reliant on aid agencies for food and other essentials, according to the UN. Some 462,000 Yemeni children are severely malnourished – a 200 per cent increase since 2014. A UN-led appeal to raise $9.4m to aid Yemen in 2017 remains only 58 per cent funded.

“The bombing continues and it is very difficult [for aid agencies] to gain access,” said Thorning-Schmidt. “Thousands of children have been killed by air strikes and ground fighting since the conflict started.”

Worse, she added, schools and hospitals have also become targets. “Schools should be sacrosanct. This is where children come despite war, and try hard to create a future. Who are we to try to destroy that?”

Save the Children has been lobbying governments to designate schools as safe havens for civilians. The charity this week called on more governments to sign the Safe Schools Declaration at an inter-governmental conference in Argentina.

Launched in 2015, the declaration is a voluntary initiative for countries to abide by a set of guidelines to protect schools and universities from military use during conflict. Sixty-one countries have signed the declaration so far, including Jordan, Lebanon and Sudan. Qatar is the only GCC signatory. Since 2013, there have been attacks on schools in at least 21 countries.

“It is an important instrument to bind all governments [to promises] to protect places where children go everyday,” said Thorning-Schmidt. “This is something we’ve been working on for years.”

Save the Children works in more than 120 countries around the world to protect the rights of children, and ensure their access to food, health and education. The charity reached more than 8 million children in the Middle East and North Africa last year, and more than 17 million globally.

In March, the UN warned that Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan were all on the brink of famine, with 1.4 million children at risk of dying from malnutrition.

“Save the Children was founded almost 100 years ago as an organisation to help children affected by war and conflict,” said Thorning-Schmidt, who took over as head of the charity in 2016. “Today, the world needs that more than ever.”