UN says Saudi’s closure of Yemen’s seaports undoes progress in fight against famine and cholera

Caught in the crossfire between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led pro-government coalition are 21 million people in need of humanitarian aid.

A girl scavenges for recyclable items at a garbage dump in a street in Sanaa, Yemen. Yemen’s raging two-year conflict has served as an incubator for lethal cholera. CREDIT: Hani Mohammed/AP Photo.
A girl scavenges for recyclable items at a garbage dump in a street in Sanaa, Yemen. Yemen’s raging two-year conflict has served as an incubator for lethal cholera. CREDIT: Hani Mohammed/AP Photo.

It’s been about a week since Saudi Arabia locked down Yemen’s land borders, air space, and seaports, because, it said, it wants to stop the flow of Iranian weapons to the Houthi rebels that the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition has been bombing for two years.

On November 4, Saudi Arabia said it intercepted a missile over northeast Riyadh that is said was fired from Yemen. Blaming Iran for the incident, Saudi authorities accused Iran of “declaring war” on their country.

So far, the only thing that putting the country on total lockdown has accomplished, according to the UN aid coordinator in Yemen, is “an already dire humanitarian situation.” Reuters reported on Tuesday that the UN coordinator Jamie McGoldrick called on the the coalition to open the seaports, immediately.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia said it would begin opening airports and seaports, but that has not happened yet. In a statement, Saudi’s permanent UN representative said he confirms that “steps are being taken by the [Saudi-led] Coalition in full consultation and agreement with the Government of Yemen, to start the process of reopening airports and seaports in Yemen to allow for the safe transfer of humanitarian actors and humanitarian and commercial shipments.”

So far, Saudi wants to bring supplies into Yemen via the ports of Jizan and Aden, a plan McGoldrick said was dangerous and slow.

“We have some 21 million people needing assistance and seven million of those are in famine-like conditions and rely completely on food aid,” he said. Humanitarian agencies have been making gains in fighting famine as well as the deadly cholera outbreak that has killed over 2,200 and made nearly 1 million people ill. But, said McGoldrick, the blockade puts that progress in jeopardy.

“This import blockage will reverse those gains and leave millions of people in a very precarious situation as we move ahead. The humanitarians are just holding things together, waiting for a peace process which is very much in the distance,” he said. “The humanitarian impact of what is happening right now is unimaginable.”

Supplies in the country are running a critical low, according to the United Nations: There are only 20 days worth of diesel (needed for pumping water — vital for sanitation and fighting cholera) and three weeks supply of vaccines for children. There’s enough wheat and rice to feed the population of 28 million for four months.

Although Iran denies backing the Houthi rebels, the Saudi-led coalition said it will continue to keep the seaport closed until the United Nations comes up with a program that ensures weapons intended for the Houthis do not make it into the country.