The blockade

Contents of this page: 

  1. The blockade
  2. Starvation 
  3. Cholera
  4. Diptheria
  5. A war on children
  6. Easing’ the blockade is not enough

The blockade

The war and blockade is causing:

  • 27 new cases of severely malnourished children under-5 every hour
  • One child to be infected with cholera every 35 seconds
  • One child to die of starvation or easily preventable diseases every ten minutes
  • A new outbreak of diptheria
  • A looming famine for 7 million people (UPDATE – 8/12/17 – it is now being reported that 8 million are facing famine)

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The coalition bombing Yemen have been implementing a blockade of the country since March 2015, crippling the country’s imports. The country’s main airport in the capital, Sanaa, has been repeatedly bombed, and airstrikes destroyed all four of the unloading cranes of the main port (through which over 70% of imports arrive) of Hodeidah in August 2015. Since then, the UN has been blocked from delivering mobile cranes to the port, leaving the port operating at levels well below its former capacity. In addition, tight restrictions on imports have resulted in lengthy, arbitrary delays, or even outright refusals to dock, massively reducing the country’s access to food, fuel and medicine. This has been devastating as Yemen is dependent on imports for 85% of its requirements.

This blockade, alongside other actions of the coalition – such as the bombing of hospitals, water treatment centres and sewage systems, and the refusal to pay wages to health and refuse workers in much of the country – has had three main effects:

  1. The death by starvation and preventable diseases of 130 children per day (over 50,000 this year alone)
  2. The worst cholera outbreak since records began in 1949, infecting almost one million people (more than 1 in 30 Yemenis) and killing over 2000.
  3. The pushing of 7 million to the brink of famine.

The recent tightening of the blockade to include a total ban on all imports, including humanitarian aid, has also led to stark warnings by aid agencies that millions will be killed by starvation if it continues, and that a new epidemic – this time of diptheria – which could potentially affect one million people, is likely. Although some limited aid deliveries are now being allowed in, humanitarian charities are absolutely clear that this is not enough to avert a famine.

Aid agencies have been unanimous in their total condemnation of the blockade, and unequivocal in identifying it as a major cause of what is now officially the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. Save the Children, for example, stated in March 2017 that “Food and aid are being used as a weapon of war”. In November 2017, Oxfam’s Shane Stevenson said: “The longer the blockade continues, the more people need our help but the less help we are able to offer…All those with influence over the Saudi-led coalition are complicit in Yemen’s suffering unless they do all they can to push them to lift the blockade.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross have also unequivocally blamed the blockade for the country’s cholera outbreak, whilst Paolo Cernuschi, of the International Rescue Committee, has said: “We are far beyond the need to raise an alarm. What is happening now is a complete disgrace.”

Image result for yemen blockade

As late as December 12th, three weeks after the Saudis promised to lift the blockade on aid deliveries, USAID coordinator Mark Green told Reuters: “Unfortunately I can’t tell you there has been an easing of the blockade”. Green said he was “deeply concerned on so many fronts” about the crisis in Yemen, but in particular the failure to get fuel into the country so people have access to clean water. “That means a number of communities are either without clean water or will be very shortly, and in both cases that is a terrible concern from the cholera perspective and the survival perspective,” he added.

On January 26th 2018, the Final Report of the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen concluded that the closure of Hodeidah in November 2017 “had the effect of using the threat of starvation as an instrument of war.”


The UN has listed Yemen as the world’s number one humanitarian crisis, with 17 million people in need of food, seven million of whom are at risk of famine.

According to the The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) one in every 12 Yemenis are severely malnourished.

And with restricted access to food and medicine, UNICEF warned in April that one child under five in Yemen now dies every 10 minutes from starvation and preventable diseases. 

Since then, however, things have got worse. In November 2017, Save the Children warned of 600 new cases of starving children under the age of five every day as a result of the tightened blockade. And on 20 November Famine Early Warning Systems Network, an international body, predicted imminent mass famine across Yemen if key ports remained closed.

There is also evidence that, in addition to the blockade, the air campaign too aims at starving Yemenis. More than 250 fishing boats have been damaged or destroyed by coalition warships and helicopters, and an LSE research project concluded that there was “strong evidence that coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution”. Meanwhile, the Yemen Data Project have recorded 356 air raids targeting farms, 174 targeting market places and 61 air raids targeting food storage sites from March 2015 to the end of September 2017.

A recent FT headline read that “Saudi allies risk complicity in the use of starvation as a weapon of war”. According to UN estimates, 71 percent of the nearly 19 million Yemenis who need assistance are in Houthi controlled areas.


In April 2017, a cholera outbreak began in Yemen. In July, the World Health Organisation reported that Yemen was seeing 5000 new cholera cases per day, that is one person being infected roughly every 20 seconds. That made it the fastest growing outbreak of the disease since records began. In November, it became the world’s largest ever outbreak, with over 815,000 infected. The previous largest outbreak, in Haiti, had taken 7 years to reach that number. Yemen reached it in just six months. As of late November 2017, the number infected now stands at 950,000.

This was a direct result of three main factors: 1. the destruction of the country’s water and sewage infrastructure, largely through Saudi airstrikes; 2. The decision by the Hadi government (supported by the Saudi-led coalition) to stop paying wages to health and sewage workers in rebel areas, and 3. the blockade restricting access to both clean water and the fuel required to pump clean water.

It is clear that water resources have been targeted, leading directly to the cholera outbreak. Writes Vox: “In January of last year, a water desalination plant in the city of Mokha was destroyed by reported airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition group. This cut off more than a million people in the nearby city of Taiz from their only source of clean water. More recently, in April, the sewer system in the capital city of Sana’a stopped working, though it’s not clear if this was the direct result of military strikes. Ten days later, a cholera epidemic hit the city, according to the BBC.”

The total blockade of all imports introduced by the coalition in November 2017 has left seven cities now without any access to clean water as they have run out of the fuel necessary to operate the pumping stations.

Shane Stevenson, Oxfam’s Country Director in Yemen said: “The people of Yemen are already being starved to submission – unless the blockade is lifted quickly they will have their clean water taken away too. Taking clean water from millions of people in a country that is already suffering the world’s largest cholera outbreak and on the verge of famine would be an act of utmost barbarity.” 

Oxfam specifically warned that “Eight million people in Yemen will be without running water within days as fuel runs out due to the Saudi-led coalition blockade of the country’s northern ports.” They added that these eight million “will join the almost 16 million people in Yemen who already cannot get clean piped water, leaving more than four in five people without a steady supply of clean water. A disruption to fuel supplies on this scale could trigger a fresh spike in a cholera epidemic which has seen nearly 950,000 suspected cases since April this year, but which had begun to ease in recent weeks. In northern areas of the country petrol stocks are due to run out soon and diesel in approximately eight days. The country’s Ministry of Water reports that seven cities have already run out of fuel and two others will run out soon. Water supply in places such as the port of Hodeidah is reliant on fuel provided by the United Nations. Aid agencies agreed to support the water supply networks but they will not be able to continue as fuel is becoming scarce and more expensive.”

The ICRC have also condemned Yemen’s cholera epidemic as a ‘man made humanitarian catastrophe’.

On November 21, the Guardian reported that “The lack of pumping stations [due to a lack of fuel caused by the blockade] now means clean water is absent in five major cities, including Sana’a, Al Bayda, Sa’dah, Taiz and Hodeidah.” 

By the end of November, the water systems of nine cities had run out of fuel, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Reuters reported on December 6th that not a single fuel shipment has been allowed in for a month, with up to 12 oil tankers refused permission to dock by the Saudi-led coalition despite having been approved by the UN Verification and Inspection Mission for Yemen (UNVIM)


Following the tightening of the blockade in November 2017, deaths from diptheria started to be reported. The UN’s coordinator for Yemen James McGoldrick said: “There is a diphtheria outbreak in the southern part of the country. Many have died already and many more are going to die soon unless we get them vaccinated completely. It is not looking very hopeful.”

An Oxfam press release in November 2017 noted that: “The local cleaning department in the city of Taiz and surrounding areas ran out of fuel this week and the clearing of rubbish from the streets has been halted – creating an ideal environment for new diseases such as dysentery and diphtheria to quickly spread.”

As of 23rd November 2017, more than 100 cases had been reported, with 14 deaths from the disease, but this number is growing every day.  By 27th November, those figures had grown to 189 clinically-diagnosed cases and 20 deaths. “It is shocking that in 2017, there are children dying of an ancient disease that is vaccine-preventable and can be easily treated,” said Dr Nevio Zagaria, WHO Country Representative in Yemen. The heads of the World Food Program, the World Health Organization and UNICEF warned in a joint statement that  “at least 1 million children are at risk of being exposed to diphtheria, if a rapidly spreading outbreak is not contained”.

A plane carrying 1.9 million doses of diptheria vaccine for under-fives finally arrived at Sanaa airport on 26th November 2017. But as of December 1st, noted WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier, “There is still not even one dose of Tetanus-Diphtheria vaccine in the country for children above five years and young adults”. He said around 8.5 million doses of the vaccine were needed to provide those at risk with the required three immunisation jabs. ”

A war on children 

“Today it is fair to say Yemen is one of the worst places on Earth to be if you’re a child. More than 11 million Yemeni children are today in acute need of humanitarian assistance. That’s almost every single Yemeni boy and girl. … The massive and unprecedented outbreak of acute watery diarrhea and cholera this year is no surprise. As you know, close to one million Yemenis have been affected by acute watery diarrhea and cholera. It’s not a surprise, because of the almost entirely devastated water and sanitation system throughout the country. Not a surprise, because in Yemen the health system is on its knees.Thousands of schools and health facilities have been damaged or completely destroyed. Two million children today in Yemen suffer acute malnutrition….The war in Yemen is sadly a war on children. Yemen is facing the worst humanitarian crisis I have ever seen in my life,” UNICEF director Geert Cappelaere said.  


The recent ‘easing’ of the blockade is not enough to avoid a major famine 

On 6th November 2017, the Saudi-led coalition began a total blockade of all shipments and flights into the country, including humanitarian aid, leading to a massive increase in shortages of food, medicine and fuel (and subsequently clean water). Although some limited aid deliveries began to be allowed into the country nearly three weeks later, aid agencies are clear these will not be anything near enough to avert a famine.

A coalition of aid groups said that the partial opening of the nearly three-week long blockade is “a minor and insufficient concession” that “still leave[s] the population of Yemen in a worse situation than they were two weeks ago before the blockade started” and the country still “on the brink.”

Save the Children’s Caroline Anning told Al Jazeera that any opening for humanitarian agencies was welcome, but it “wouldn’t be enough to avert a potential famine”.

“Aid agencies such as ours and the UN are only able to provide a fraction of the food, fuel and water that is needed. It’s imperative that commercial supplies are able to get in as well.”

“Prices are continuing to go up, with families having to choose between buying clean water for their children or buying bread that day,” Anning told Al Jazeera.

“We’re facing a critical situation where there’s only a small amount of food supplies left in warehouses and they’ll only last the next 4-8 weeks.”

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), a USAID-funded organisation that monitors food security issues, recently reported that “even if throughput [through Aden] improved significantly, famine will remain likely … [as] very large shortfalls in the availability of food, fuel, and medical supplies cannot be met by humanitarian assistance alone”.

Paolo Cernuschi, the Yemen director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a New-York based relief group, said the easing of access restrictions was “no cause for celebration”.

“Even though [the] reopening of ports to humanitarian traffic will ease the flow of aid, it will still leave the population of Yemen in a worse situation than they were two weeks ago before the blockade started,” he said.

“Humanitarian aid alone cannot meet the needs of Yemenis who are unjustly bearing the brunt of this war. Access by commercial shipments of food and fuel must be resumed immediately, otherwise this action will do little to turn Yemen back from the brink of famine and crisis.”

Amnesty’s Yemen researcher Rasha Mohamed told Al Jazeera that humanitarian imports alone did not meet the needs of the civilian population.

“Yemen needs monthly food imports of approximately 350,000 metric tonnes for survival, of which humanitarian imports are about 75,000 metric tonnes,” she said.

“This is far from sufficient to meet needs of the population. Full unfettered access for people and goods, commercial as well as humanitarian, is needed.”

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian chief, has stressed that 5 immediate steps are needed to avert famine:

  • Resumption of air services.
  • Assurances flights will not be disrupted.
  • Opening of all ports to humanitarian and commercial vessels, especially those with critical supplies.
  • Agreement to keep a U.N. World Food Program ship in waters off Aden.
  • Halt to interference with all vessels that have passed inspection by the U.N. Verification and Inspection Mechanism “so that they can proceed to port as rapidly as possible.”

Lowcock stressed the last point saying, “This is important because humanitarian access to the ports was inadequate even before the measures announced on Nov. 6” by the coalition.

Lowcock said he couldn’t put a timeline on famine if the Saudi blockade isn’t lifted, but it is inevitable.

Oxfam has noted that lifting aid restrictions won’t prevent the lack of clean water, nor the spread of cholera and other water-borne diseases: “Water scarcity in Yemen is amongst the worst in the world and the country mostly depends on ground water for its water supply. Petrol prices have already leaped 200 percent in the capital Sanaa and the price of water has more than doubled – well beyond the reach of most people. A Saudi-led coalition blockade has closed Yemen’s northern ports since 6 November, pushing millions more people to the edge of what is already the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe and the world’s worst ever recorded cholera outbreak. The coalition announced on 23 November they would reopen the ports to aid, but without fuel this will not significantly improve the situation.” 

WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier warned on December 1st 2017 that fuel shortages and soaring prices caused by the blockade could risk disrupting fuel deliveries to 122 hospitals and could potentially force some to close. He warned that the situation was dire, pointing out that due to “the long delay and closure of access there is a big backlog of material coming in. We have a bottleneck with a lot of material and supplies waiting either in Djibouti or somewhere out there and waiting to be cleared.”

On December 8th 2017, UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen Jamie McGoldrick said there were 15 ships, carrying mainly food and fuel, waiting to enter the Yemeni ports of Hodeidah and Salif.

“They need to come onshore now,” said McGoldrick, speaking via telephone from Sanaa. “There are some boats which are offshore which have been cleared by Riyadh already … We see no reason why they should not be able to come onshore now.”