Millions of women and children face war-zone famine

The war in Yemen has pushed the country to the brink of famine, with both commercial food imports and aid deliveries held up by the fighting and millions of hungry women and children facing possible starvation, the United Nations has said.

A Yemeni child gets a rare meal after her family fled fighting. All sides in the conflict must approve aid for it to be viable. Picture:AFP/Getty

Ertharin Cousin, head of the UN’s World Food Programme, said that while some food aid is flowing in, fighting around major ports is stalling deliveries, reaching the country’s interior is proving difficult and donor funding is still falling short.

“If we do not receive the additional access that is required to meet the needs of those who are affected by this ongoing conflict, if we cannot support the commercial markets by ensuring that the ports are open and providing food to ensure that those who have resources can buy the food that is necessary, and if we do not see increased donor support, we are facing the perfect storm in Yemen,” she said.

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Ms Cousin was in Cairo following a three-day trip to Yemen. The WFP says all sides in the conflict must approve food deliveries.

UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien, who also just returned from Yemen, told the UN Security Council “the scale of human suffering is almost incomprehensible.”

He said he was shocked by what he saw: four out of five Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance, nearly 1.5 million people are internally displaced, and people were using cardboard for mattresses at a hospital where lights flickered, the blood bank had closed and there were no more examination gloves.

Yemen’s conflict pits Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against southern separatists, local and tribal militias, Sunni Islamic militants and troops loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is in exile in Saudi Arabia.

The humanitarian situation has steadily deteriorated since the fighting picked up in March, when Saudi Arabia launched a US-backed coalition air campaign against Houthi forces and their allies, which control large swaths of the country.

Saudi Arabia views the Houthis as a proxy of its arch rival, Shiite powerhouse Iran, and an attempt to expand its influence on the Arabian Peninsula. Iran supports the Houthis politically but denies arming them.

Pro-government forces pushed the rebels out of the southern port city of Aden last month and have made gains in the surrounding provinces. But their advance stalled on Tuesday after a rebel ambush killed dozens of fighters.

Since August, the food programme says it has been able to make 16 deliveries via sea to Yemen, accounting for over 123,000 metric tons of food. But difficulties remain because of the fighting, which has caused port closures. The western port city of Hodeida was hit with airstrikes on Tuesday night.

“We actually had a ship berthed in port that was not damaged but had not been given clearance to offload when that bombing attack occurred,” Ms Cousin said. “We’re bringing in food from Hodeida that we can’t get to the south.

“We have right now, a ship sitting off the port of Aden that has materials in it that we could use in the south, and we’re still waiting for permission for that ship to come in,” she said, adding that in order to access the rest of the country, all the ports must be open.

Only two humanitarian vessels have been able to dock and offload at the Hodeida port in more than two weeks.