What happens when the world’s largest humanitarian crisis takes a dramatic turn for the worse?  A catastrophe of astonishing proportions is unfolding before our eyes as Yemen’s Houthi-controlled territory is sealed off and suffocated. Today, the international community is faced with yet another test of its collective will to prevent mass atrocities from taking place. It is failing. Absent a rapid turnaround, we are likely to witness in Yemen an extraordinary level of devastation, the likes of which most of us have never lived through.

Widespread hunger and a massive cholera outbreak were already the reality in Yemen before Saudi Arabia strengthened its cruel and deadly de facto blockade with tacit international backing. Even before recent events, more than 17 million people in Yemen didn’t know where their next meal would come from, and 7 million were on the verge of famine. More than 928,000 people are believed to have contracted cholera in Yemen in 2017, the largest and fastest outbreak in recorded history. By comparison, the next largest cholera epidemic is in Haiti, where roughly 813,000 suspected cases have arisen – since 2010.

In the past two weeks, the situation has turned truly appalling. On Nov. 4, Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile targeting the civilian airport in Riyadh. Saudi forces shot it down, but their leaders took notice. Both the Saudi-led coalition and forces aligned with the Houthis and Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh have routinely targeted civilians and civilian objects in their nearly three-year-old war, but the attack on Riyadh demonstrated the Houthis’ newfound willingness and capability to threaten the center of the Saudi Kingdom.

In response, Saudi Arabia announced a total closure of Yemen’s land, air, and seaports. While it was unclear whether the Yemeni government formally consented to that decision, its position was of little consequence, as Saudi Arabia announced the reopening of Yemen’s government-controlled ports and crossings within days. Thus, as the dust settled, the same Houthi-controlled points of entry that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has long desired to control are now shut down.

Among those points of entry is the Sana’a airport. Though controlled by the Houthis on the ground, its airspace – like all of Yemen’s – is controlled by the coalition. As a result, Saudi Arabia shut down commercial flights more than a year ago, even though those flights were stopped and inspected in Saudi Arabia en route. Saudi Arabia must also approve every passenger on every humanitarian aid flight, and has refused to allow journalists to enter to document the situation. This month’s escalation of the blockade, however, puts a halt to even these fully Saudi-vetted aid flights. So, for the time being, no humanitarian aid gets in, and no humanitarian workers get out. 

Most critical of all for commercial shipments and aid delivery is the seaport of Hodeidah, which the coalition has long sought to control. More than 70 percent of Yemen’s food, and a substantial amount of its fuel, comes through Hodeidah, and it’s not by accident. Hodeidah’s deep water, proximity to populous areas, grain storage and milling infrastructure, and lengthy conventional and container berths, make its capacity irreplaceable by other ports. Saudi Arabia’s proposed alternatives – rerouting ships to Aden or the Saudi Arabian port city of Jizan, and then shipping supplies overland – are absurdly impractical. Even if either port had the capacity and infrastructure to accommodate Hodeidah’s commercial and humanitarian shipments, transporting cargoes overland from either port would involve long, dangerous, and expensive journeys. In either case, more expensive shipping would result in higher prices for Yemenis. Higher prices for Yemen’s vulnerable population in its collapsed economy means mass death.

Oxfam is currently reaching 1.5 million people with assistance, but even our aid won’t do much good if this course holds. In two governorates where we work, fuel has already run out. That means water pumps and purification mechanisms will grind to a halt, hospital lights will go out, refrigerators will turn off. Only water contaminated by sewage will be left to drink, and with price hikes pushing food even further out of reach, preventable disease will overwhelm compromised immune systems and weakened bodies. Aid workers, unable to drive, will find it difficult to stay in touch with communities. Medicines that need to be kept cold will expire and, with essential medicines unavailable, thousands of Yemenis will succumb to basic illnesses. Young children, pregnant mothers, and the frail elderly will be first, with others not far behind. Many of their fates have already been written, though lifting the blockade now could still prevent what the United Nations warns could be the worst famine the world has seen in decades, with millions of victims.

What makes this situation all the more disgusting is the patent uselessness of the blockade to achieve its stated purpose. It will not improve the security of Saudi Arabia one iota, because it is not in any way oriented to prevent the trafficking of weapons from Iran to Houthi rebels.

Large, international container ships, bulk carriers, and fuel tankers are screened by the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM), a special, Saudi- and US-funded organization set up expressly to prevent weapons shipments through Houthi-controlled Red Sea ports. UNVIM carries out rigorous, intelligence-based interdiction, sometimes using x-ray technology, to prevent weapons smuggling. In fact, even Saudi Arabia has not alleged that any of these ships, or any humanitarian flights, have ever been used to smuggle weapons to the Houthis. But rather than step up its focus on the small ships it suspects may carry weapons, Saudi Arabia has elected to ban ships and planes that it knows do not – at great cost to the civilian population.

In spite of this backward logic, the US government has led its allies in demonstrations of solidarity with Saudi Arabia against Iran, ignoring a ghastly humanitarian crisis. The international community’s unqualified support for Saudi Arabia’s position nearly culminated in the adoption of a UN Security Council Presidential Statement condemning the Houthis and Iran’s malign activity without so much as a mention of Yemen’s dire humanitarian crisis and the steps taken by Saudi Arabia to push it to the brink of catastrophe. In a shameful display of complacency and appeasement, a group known as “the Quint” comprised of the U.S., the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, canceled its Nov. 14 meeting, which was aimed at revitalizing peace talks.

The coming days and weeks will determine life or death for families across Yemen. If Saudi Arabia’s international partners delicately raise humanitarian access while offering statements of solidarity against Iran, nothing will change. Carefully balanced rhetoric will lead to a predictably and historically gruesome massacre of innocent people. On the other hand, a unified cry of outrage by the international community may just save millions of lives.


Image: A malnourished child lies in a bed at a therapeutic feeding centre in a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, Nov. 12, 2017. Photo by Hani Al-Ansi/AP Images