The storm of humanitarian disaster in Yemen has been gathering strength for years. Providing humanitarian aid is a real challenge, but ways must be found - now.
Humanitarian aid vital to avert crisis in Yemen
Ali Abdullah Saleh may no longer be formally in charge of Yemen, but the problems that accumulated during his decades of mismanagement continue to worsen. Security is the most visible concern, for obvious reasons after a suicide bomber killed more than 90 soldiers in Sanaa on Monday. But as the Friends of Yemen group met in Riyadh yesterday, there was a related issue at the top of the agenda: Yemen faces the immediate prospect of a humanitarian crisis.
On the eve of the conference, seven aid organisations - Care International, International Medical Corps, Islamic Relief, Mercy Corps, Merlin, Oxfam and Save the Children - raised concerns that food shortages could reach "catastrophic" levels and called on the international community to ramp up levels of aid funding. In some parts of the country, the report stated, one in three children is malnourished.
To be sure Yemen suffers from myriad ills. There is a low-intensity war being conducted in the south; US drone attacks against Al Qaeda continue to destabilise the countryside; and agricultural resources are squandered on the cultivation of qat, which consumes about 40 per cent of annual water usage. Bleak estimates are that Sanaa may exhaust renewable water sources within five years.
The warning signs are far too obvious to ignore. Riyadh announced yesterday that it will donate $3.25 billion (D12 billion). While this is encouraging, it is incumbent on Saudi Arabia and other countries that will pledge aid at this conference to ensure that funds and food are delivered where they are most needed. Aid needs to be distributed through the tribes as well as via Sanaa, but too often in the past foreign funds have simply propped up patronage networks. It is also worth noting that promises of aid have not always been followed with full delivery.
The United States is consumed by security issues and targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but that is a myopic view. Yemen's long-term security depends on its economic recovery and growth; with a failing agricultural sector and dwindling oil reserves, this is a crisis that has been a long time in coming. The prospect of widespread food shortages and instability, layered on existing security faults, would affect the Arabia peninsula and beyond.
Development aid, better agricultural practices and improved infrastructure are all necessary for Yemen's future. But for the present, this is a firefighting scenario to prevent a disaster that would cost many lives, from which it would take many years to recover. Yemen has never needed friends so urgently as now.