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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Humanitarian crisis in Yemen

Sho Beppu

Sep. 4, 2017

Yemen has been mired in civil war for more than 2 years. Thousands of people have died both in the conflict and as a result of cholera and starvation.

It's often dubbed the “Forgotten War” because it's attracted less international attention than the war in Syria, even though there is a severe humanitarian crisis.

Last month, the World Health Organization announced that more than half a million people had contracted cholera in Yemen. The agency states that this is the worst cholera outbreak it has ever recorded.

Along with the threat of disease, there's also a severe shortage of food. Two thirds of the population face starvation, and children are at a severe risk of malnutrition.

This situation has been brought about by the fighting that has raged on between the government and the anti-government group, the Houthi rebels. More than 2 million people are internally displaced.

The major Middle Eastern powers are leading military interventions. The Saudi-led coalition supports the government, while Iran is said to support the Houthi rebels.

Without any sign of peace in sight, the people of Yemen hope that the greater international community will respond to their desperate situation.


Newsroom Tokyo Anchor Hideki Nakayama is joined by Senior International News Commentator Sho Beppu.

Nakayama: I was covering Yemen when I was a correspondent in Dubai. It was already a crisis for more than 2 years, but it seems like things have worsened significantly.

Beppu: That’s right. The situation is so bad that some even call this a “humanitarian catastrophe.” It’s as if the state has collapsed and the country is not functioning.

Children are particularly hit hard by the crisis. Almost 2.2 million children are suffering from acute malnutrition. If you are malnourished, it becomes easier to get cholera, and if you have cholera, it results in poor nutrition. So, it's a vicious cycle.

Nakayama: Why did cholera spread so rapidly?

Beppu: It’s because of a lack of clean water and adequate sanitation. Garbage collection has basically stopped, so you see piles of trash all around. Plus, many water treatment facilities and the sewage system have been destroyed by the conflict. Most people no longer have access to clean water. The cholera virus is spreading through contaminated rivers and ponds.

The speed of the spread is unprecedented. Up to now, the largest cholera outbreak was considered to be the one in Haiti. The country was hit by a major earthquake in 2010.

According to UNICEF, the worst year was 2011, when 350,000 people were infected in a single year. In Yemen, it’s only been 4 months since the outbreak began, and 550,000 people have already been infected. So you see how fast the disease is spreading. The United Nations calls the outbreak in Yemen “the worst cholera crisis in the world.”

Nakayama: The other concern is the food shortage.

Beppu: The UN and other humanitarian organizations categorize food shortage in 5 levels. Level 3, orange, is “crisis” level, and level 4, red, is an “emergency.” The UN is now warning that unless the situation changes, we will see areas at 5, the worst level -- “famine.” “Famine” is declared when 3 indicators are met. One of them is that “2 people out of 10,000 die from starvation every day.”

Nakayama: What can be done to prevent reaching level 5?

Beppu: One of the keys lies in the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, the largest port in Yemen. The UN delivers 70 percent of its food aid to Yemen through this port every month -- that’s 50,000 tons of food.

But there is a growing danger that this port might be cut off. The port is under rebel control, and the coalition that supports the government is planning further bombardments to recapture it. Humanitarian agencies say access to the port is critical.

"If indeed there's another shock to the system, which losing access to Hodeidah port would be a major shock, which could be the one that could push the country really to beyond the edge. So this is our nightmare scenario. I just hope that day does not come because already, even with some restriction in place, we're able to operate and to get assistance to the people who need it most, feeding more than 5 million people every month, this is still not enough," says Stephen Anderson, representative of the World Food Programme Yemen.

Nakayama: What is being done to avoid the “nightmare scenario” of the port of Hodeidah being blocked?

Beppu: The UN envoy for Yemen proposed this May to make the port of Hodeidah a neutral area. The hope is that this proposal will lead the fighting parties to agree on a cease fire first in this port area. And, if that is achieved, the hope is to expand the cease fire to other parts of the country.

I would like to share with you some footage that we filmed during my last visit to Yemen.

That was in June 2013. Coffee shops in the capital had mangoes hanging out front. I remember how people told me about their families, their jobs and the future of their country over a glass of freshly-squeezed mango juice.

Yemen has very little oil and even before the civil war, it was known as the poorest country in the Arab world, but it was definitely not a country where people starve to death.

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has nothing to do with natural disasters. It was made 100 percent by the civil war. Since the crisis is man-made, why can’t there be a man-made solution? Is the international community strong enough to find a solution? I would say that this is a serious test of our real strength.