Yemen’s cholera epidemic worst on record

25th Aug 2017

3-year-old Rahaf Ibrahim is one of over 400,000 Yemenis hit by the cholera epidemic sweeping the war-torn nation (Photo: Islamic Relief)

Rida Shaban

Yemen is enduring the “worst cholera outbreak in the world”, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Latest figures reveal that over 400,000 cases of cholera have been identified, concentrated mostly in Houthi (Ansar Allah)-controlled areas as the Saudi-led coalition continues to bombard them, destroying infrastructure, sanitation systems and leaving a staggering number of civilian casualties in its wake.

Malnutrition and collapsing health, water and sanitation systems have been cited by the WHO as the causes behind the outbreak. Malnutrition has spiked in the war-torn country since the conflict erupted and the Saudi-led coalition began its blockade and bombing of Yemeni ports in March 2015, preventing food and basic necessities from reaching millions of impoverished residents of the import-dependent country.

UNHCR’s Yemen spokeswoman, Shabia Mantoo, told The Muslim News that this blockade has made it “very difficult” to deliver aid and the UNHCR has been advocating for the vital supplies to be allowed into Yemen, though without success. “The lack of peace, which is required for humanitarian relief”, she said, “has meant the outbreak is ongoing”.

“The blockade of war-ravaged Yemen must be lifted immediately…The unwarranted restrictions on the flow of commercial and humanitarian goods and services into Yemen and impeding distribution within the country are paralyzing a nation that for far too long has been a victim of war,” said the UN Special Rapporteur, Idriss Jazairy.

However, examples of illegal aid impediment are present on both sides of the conflict, with the Human Rights Watch criticising the Houthis for preventing sufficient aid and vital goods from reaching the residents of Taizz. President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, said that the “cholera outbreak is a preventable, man-made humanitarian catastrophe”.

The Saudi-led aggression has prevented the Yemeni population from receiving adequate relief, with the port of Hodeidah, formerly responsible for 70 percent of Yemen’s food imports, being critically bombed, stopping much of the vital food and humanitarian aid from reaching poverty-stricken civilians, of whom 10,000 have perished as a result of the conflict, according to the UN.

Meanwhile, the coalition of nine Arab countries has been relentless in its aerial attack on Ansar Allah-controlled areas and has destroyed markets, hospitals, schools, food factories and water desalination plants, causing the destruction of livelihoods and countless civilian deaths. This has crippled local economies and has caused a grave humanitarian and sanitary calamity which has facilitated the cataclysmic cholera outbreak.

However, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs backed findings from the Joint Incidents Assessment Team inquiry that found that it was “satisfied that all safety procedures implemented by Coalition forces adhered to international humanitarian law”.

The cholera epidemic, spread by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae through contaminated food or water, has ravaged the Yemen while activists on the ground claim aid is being prevented from reaching the victims.

The WHO has so far confirmed 1,915 deaths from cholera and 436,525 cases in Yemen since the start of the outbreak in April and expects the number of cases to rise to over 600,000 by the end of 2017. Among the battle-scarred wreck of today’s Yemen, cholera has severely exacerbated the existing humanitarian crisis as the country is already on the verge of running out of food and water, with the food insecurity status of all but two Yemeni provinces being classified by the UN as in a state of crisis or emergency.

While 21 million Yemenis, the majority of the country’s population, desperately require humanitarian assistance according to the UN, the US and UK continue to provide Saudi Arabia with the weapons it has used for attacks that have resulted in civilian casualties, of which the Human Rights Watch has deemed 61 attacks as “unlawful…some of which may amount to war crimes”. All munitions identified by the UN at sites of what it claims to be Saudi-coalition war crimes have been exported from the US or UK.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir has said that the Kingdom “responded out of necessity…to protect the legitimate Government [of Hadi]”. As battling factions continue to devastate Yemen, cholera and malnourishment will continue to take thousands more civilian lives, forgotten and away from the world stage.

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