Even if the five-year war in Yemen were to end today, it would take two decades for the impoverished country’s children to reach the lesser level of malnutrition they suffered before the conflict, according to a new report to be released on Tuesday by a charity organisation.
Without an immediate ceasefire, the war could cost the international community an additional $29bn (£22bn) in resources, according to the International Rescue Committee's report The War Destroyed Our Dreams.
“Yemen is now home to the largest food insecure population in the world,” says the 20-page report.
And the situation is worsening. Just a year ago, famine was declared in certain parts of the country. Now, 80 per cent of the country’s population of 24 million is facing severe food shortages and living on the edge of famine, with children suffering the most.
“It means each child is robbed of opportunities they would have had,” said Frank McManus, Yemen director for the IRC, speaking in a phone interview from the country’s Houthi-controlled capital, Sana'a.
“Malnourishment is not something you can recover from,” he said. “It will shorten your height. It will limit your opportunities. It will impact how you will develop.
“This will also restrict the development of the nation,” he continued. “So much of the youth will be less than they could have been if they hadn’t gone through this.”
Yemen’s war began as a conflict between Houthi rebels rooted in the country’s northern countryside and the UN-endorsed government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
But it quickly turned into a proxy battle between Iran, which backs the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which back the government now based in the south. It has since become even more complex, with southern separatists, al-Qaeda fighters and Sudanese guns-for-hire entering the mix of armed groups.
Saudi airstrikes have had a devastating impact on civilians, as have sieges on populated areas by both the Houthi and government side. The United Kingdom, United States and France have been strongly criticised for continuing to sell advanced weapons and provide military support to the Saudi regime in its efforts to defeat the Houthis, who are seen as an ally of Iran.
Yet both sides in the war have failed to meet their aims. In fact, the report says, the conflict has not only devastated Yemen, but boomeranged on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the latter of which has been scrambling for months to find an exit from the conflict.
“Far from cementing Hadi’s position, ensuring Saudi and Emirati national security, or diminishing Iranian influence, the war has empowered separatist forces, strengthened Iran’s regional influence, created new threats to Saudi and Emirati national security as well as the global energy supply, and left a void of governance filled by terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and Isis,” says the report.
Mr McManus said that while jihadi groups such as Isis and the local al-Qaeda affiliate are not as strong as they were a couple of years ago, they continue to retain a foothold in the country.
“The war has not reduced the influence of the jihadis,” he said. “It is giving them space to grow, making them more important in national dynamics.”
The IRC urges an urgent peace, pointing to the modest successes of the so-called Stockholm Agreement that curtailed fighting in the port city of Hodeidah a year ago. Even though violations of the ceasefire regularly take place, a devastating humanitarian crisis over the port city and a potential worsening of the food insecurity in the country’s north was averted. Still, Mr McManus pointed out, the ceasefire in Hodeidah immediately intensified fighting in other parts of the country.
“The ceasefire around Hodeidah isn’t perfect but it’s better than nothing,” he said.
Humanitarian aid by international organisations remains the sole lifeline for the country, which has suffered an economic collapse because of the war.
The report describes the story of Fulla, the mother of twin girls, Yusra and Yumna, who began showing signs of severe malnutrition when they were less than a year old. The mother was unable to afford a hospital, but managed to find an IRC health team. After a month and a half of treatment, the twins began to recover.
Mr McManus said an immediate ceasefire and an attempt to resolve the conflict peacefully through a power-sharing agreement is the only way to bring relief to the country. He urged campaigners to pressure lawmakers in western capitals.
The United States congress, acting in response to widespread anger at the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, over the murder of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi and the civilian toll of the Yemen conflict, has repeatedly voted to end Washington’s support for the conflict, only to be thwarted by the US president, Donald Trump.
“We’re not saying anyone is blameless,” said Mr McManus. “The US and UK have the influence on one side. We have much less influence over [the Houthis and Iran]. We should focus on where we can influence: the UK or the US.”