Humanitarian Pauses in Yemen?

On 25 July, the “legitimate” Yemeni Government [currently based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia] announced the third humanitarian pause in the war due to start the next day. Earlier a 7 day pause had been announced by the United Nations to start on 10 July. The previous one, for 5 days, started on 12 May.

This will be seen as an interesting new form of fiction by the people in Yemen who have seen no reduction of either coalition air strikes (in support of the legitimate government) or shelling and ground fighting between the resistance and the joint forces of former president Saleh and the Huthis. At no time did the fighting cease completely, making a complete mockery of the concept of a humanitarian pause. Over 4000 people have been killed and 20,000 injured since 26 March, not to mention the material damage to infrastructure and the country’s unique cultural heritage.

In the past 126 days since the coalition bombing started and a little longer since the ground war has been in full force, three “humanitarian pauses” have been announced. None of them had any significant impact on the ground, though the first saw a reduction in fighting allowing for more humanitarian aid convoys to travel in the country.

While control and checking of ships trying to bring basic supplies of food, medicines and fuel has been relaxed in recent weeks, ships landing are far fewer than needed, and are queuing in the Red Sea or waiting in Djibouti. But as recently as this week, the UN reminded the world that it had long ago proposed ‘a light, UN-led inspections mechanism enabling the flow of commercial imports to increase’ and was still waiting for this to be approved.

Until late July, Aden port, the main one in the country, was completely inaccessible due to Saleh/Huthi forces preventing its use, while Hodeida could only function at a fraction of its capacity due to shortages of fuel and electricity as well as insecurity which prevented staff from going to work and meant that all unloading had to be done manually. Onward movement inland also suffers from insecurity, occasional attacks on trucks as well as shortages of fuel. The re-opening of Aden port now that the city is under the control of the legitimate authority will hopefully significantly ease relief efforts, for this city and its neighbouring areas at least.

Running Out of Disaster Vocabulary

Meanwhile on 1 July, the UN system declared a “level 3 emergency response” something it only does in extreme circumstances, reflecting the desperation of the situation, which is indeed shocking. Senior UN officials are exhausting the diplomatic vocabulary for disastrous situations, trying to find words which might on the one hand influence the fighting groups to respect international humanitarian law, and on the other persuade the international community to finance urgently needed basic assistance.

As the Under-Secretary for Humanitarian affairs Stephen O’Brien put it, the situation in Yemen is deteriorating and “the impact on civilians is indeed catastrophic.” His speech includes the words dire, catastrophic, staggering, starvation, harrowing, dangerous and more. With respect to the financing humanitarian assistance, he stated that it is “woefully under-resourced”, pointing out that only 15% of the required USD 1.6 billion have been received and that much has been advanced “in expectation of the original Saudi pledge of USD 274 million” whose delivery is presumably still awaited. Readers are urged to contribute to the various appeals for funds for humanitarian support for Yemen and, in particular can do so through Medecins Sans Frontieres who are very active.

To re-emphasise the points, it is now estimated that 80% of the country’s population, ie over 21 million people are in need of assistance. Despite this frightening fact, the UN is only targeting just over half that number [under 12 million]; there are officially close to 1.3 million displaced people, but the real figure is likely to be much higher. For example, in al Baidha governorate, according to the UN there are 7, 700 displaced people – but I personally know of over 70 in just two households in one village coming from 3 different governorates! Without wanting to denigrate the heroic efforts of those on the ground who are delivering aid often under fire, it must be noted that, given shortage of funding and other factors, it has only been able to deliver water and sanitation assistance to 3.3 million of the 20.4 million in need, food to 1.9 or the 13 million in need, health services to 880 000 of the 15 million in need!

Taking the most basic needs: Yemen normally imports about 80% of its basic food supplies, particularly its main staples, wheat [90%] rice [100%] sugar [100%] tea [100%]. In the first 3 months of the war, the country imported only 25% of its food needs, while local production suffered from the massive fuel shortages which prevented transport of locally produced food to the areas where it is most needed as well as irrigation for vegetable cultivation. A journalist who stayed in Aden for a month reported not eating any vegetables during the whole period. Imports of fuel ranged from 1% of needs in April to 44% of needs in June. Fuel availability also affects that of water for drinking and domestic use, with over 20 million people now not having access to clean water.

What fuel is available has increased in price by about 400% rising to 800% in some places. To address this situation, the Huthi “regime” in Sana’a decreed the de-regulation of fuel prices on 27 July [decree 36 of 2015] with details which will be sobering to anyone who came out in support of the Huthis just under a year ago when the Hadi regime increased prices in conformity with the requirements of the IMF. The new regulation allows the private sector to import fuel and changes taxation by replacing contributions to the road maintenance and the Agriculture & Fisheries promotion funds with contributions to the construction of an oil port in Salif [where there already is one] and of a power station in an unknown location. The absence of an official price for petrol and diesel will presumably simply mean that the black market prices are now legitimate.

As always in crises and emergencies, the poor are suffering most. While electricity bills are no longer a major item of expenditure for most households due to the disappearance of electricity altogether, cooking gas prices have doubled where it is available; most people now use what little firewood and charcoal they can get hold of. Water is either collected by hand from local wells and springs or from tankers delivering it to neighbourhoods and then collected by 20litre jerrycans, as the quantities previously available for washing and laundry, in towns at least, cannot be found.

Water is now distributed in neighbourhoods as a charity by NGOs when they have fuel to get hold of it. Food prices have increased on average by 25% since February this year but had gone up by 45% in April alone. Sources of income have dried up: casual employment in construction, markets and anywhere still exists on a much reduced scale in the cities where relative peace prevails, such as Sana’a, Hodeida and Mukalla, but people only go out and take the risk of being caught in crossfire in Taiz and, until very recently in Aden. Hence one of the attractions of joining a militia, at least that means being paid and having money to acquire at least some basic necessities for one’s family.

Head of Central Bank Tries to Leave the Country

Government salaries are still being paid, but this is unlikely to last much longer as the Ministry of Finance is close to running out of funds; in late June the deficit reached 23% at over YR 500 billion. The Central Bank has not issued any reports since January, but the balance of foreign reserves has decreased by about 26% in the first five months of 2015, and the Head of the Central Bank has just been arrested by the Huthi/Saleh alliance as he was trying to leave the country. With some sense of realism, the Ministry of Planning is projecting a 13% decrease in GDP this year, but reliable observers expect this to be an underestimate due to the destruction of much of the country’s basic infrastructure through ground conflict, coalition airstrikes as well as worsening unemployment resulting for the interruption of most private and international business activities as well as agriculture and local industry.

Daily life, when not dodging the bullets, shells and bombs, is made up of attempts at carrying out basic tasks of obtaining water, food and fuel, as well as facing a broader than ever range of bureaucratic hurdles, whether to try and earn an income or to obtain funds from a bank or other institution or indeed anything else. Each outing into the streets puts younger men at risk of being forcibly enrolled in a militia or suspected of being an opponent of one kind or another. Displaced people are living mostly with relatives and friends, putting pressure on already overcrowded and underserviced homes.

Politics Goes On

Now a few words about politics: Having announced a peace conference in Geneva to start on 28 May, the UN had to cancel this as no one agreed to attend and the announcement had been premature, to say the least. It was then postponed to mid-June when meetings which can fairly be described as a shambles took place, given that instead of the proposed two delegations of 7 members each, there were a number of delegations with many more members and meetings were held in separate rooms. The southerners who were part of the “official” delegation refused to sit with their delegation while the Huthi delegation included a number of senior General People’s Congress Saleh supporters. In addition to some farcical travel delays for the Sana’a mission, the meetings produced no notable outcome which could have been the subject of a press release. While the UN new Special Envoy is certainly doing his best to try and bring the various factions to further talks, his and the UN’s reputation were not enhanced either by these meetings or by the fiasco of the pre-Ramadan humanitarian pause.

While many initially wondered why the pause did not take effect since Hadi and the Saudis had agreed to it, the answer became evident on 13 July when the military stalemate was broken with the launch of the Golden Arrow offensive by combined naval Emirati forces with Yemeni landed troops and the continuation of Saudi strikes on Aden. Again one was left speculating about the relationship between events in Yemen and the Iranian nuclear talks as this breakthrough took place just the day after the signature of the Geneva agreement. While fighting in Aden continued for well over a week and, at the time of writing there are still Huthi/Saleh snipers in action, the airport was re-opened and by July 22, planes with military and humanitarian assistance started landing, despite the occasional Huthi/Saleh shelling from about 20km away. Some ministers have returned to Aden and the UN has sent many senior officials who returned with harrowing reports about the abysmal conditions and very heavy death toll prevailing in the ruins of what was once Yemen’s second city and an earlier capital.

While all this is going on there are some very slight hints of hope, mostly around a series of secret meetings taking place very quietly in a number of locations including Muscat, Cairo, Amman and Moscow. These have variously included senior Huthis, senior GPC members close to Saleh, representatives of Hadi, with Iranians, Americans and other diplomats. There have even been rumours [promptly denied] of meetings between Saleh representatives and US and UK diplomats. Certainly these are a long way from achieving results and in the case of the Huthis’ meetings in Muscat happened without Saleh’s say-so, something which he complained about publicly in interviews, and is yet another hint of the stresses in that alliance.

However it is far too early to hope for its breakdown as both sides need each other and share one common objective, preventing the establishment of a federal state and the return of forces supporting the GCC agreement and transition started in 2011, and which they interrupted by their coups de force from mid-2014 onwards.