Could Yemen be the Next Somalia?

UNICEF Nutrition Officer Dr. Rajia Sharhan holds a young child at a therapeutic feeding centre in Sana'a, the Yemeni capital. (UNICEF Yemen/2011/Halldorsson)

With months of political unrest layered upon an already hungry and impoverished population, a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Yemen. The suffering is taking place on many fronts.

Recent fighting in southern Yemen between the government and suspected Al Qaeda militants is causing displacement and malnutrition, particularly among children. There are also hundreds of thousands of displaced persons from a conflict in the North who need humanitarian assistance. Many Yemenis are impacted by high food prices.

Add this together and you have a Somalia-size humanitarian disaster potentially in the offing – that is, if no action is taken. In an IRIN News story Geert Cappelaere of UNICEF says, “Yemen could become the next Somalia as child malnutrition is as big as it is in the Horn of Africa.”

Even before the political unrest began, aid agencies like the World Food Programme and UNICEF were short on funding and unable to reach all those in need. Hunger and malnutrition were severe problems. Food prices were high .

Instability has resulted in a shortage of fuel, electricity and other basic services. Food prices have skyrocketed even higher. Families have skipped meals or cut back on certain food items needed for a healthy diet.

A gradual breakdown of public services is taking place. When this happens, it creates a devastating domino effect that is often silent and potentially deadly. You have the most dreaded scenario unfolding: unvaccinated and malnourished children.

A recent UNICEF report states, “Governorates continue to report an average of 20% non-operational vaccinating facilities, either because health workers are unable to travel to the health facilities or cold chain refrigeration is disrupted due to lack of electricity and gas.”

Dr Rajia Ahmed Sharhan of UNICEF says, “Families are finding it difficult to go to health facilities due to the high cost of transport especially when they are from villages and are far from health centers.” The result is fewer visits by families to get what they most desperately need.

When health interventions can be applied, they are enormously successful. Take for instance the miracle food plumpy’nut, which needs to be in full supply in Yemen to treat child malnutrition.

Dr. Sharhan says, “Children who have received plumpy’nut were cured from malnutrition within 45 days maximum…some get cured very fast within 30 days. You can see the results immediately.” Plumpy’nut rescues children from lifelong physical and mental damage that can occur early in life from lack of nourishment. Imagine what long-term change could occur in Yemen if a whole generation of children could be saved from the damaging malnutrition.

UNICEF should be provided with a full supply of plumpy’nut to treat all the cases of malnutrition. It would be an inexpensive investment for the international community to make. Ultimately, it is the most important.

A coalition of nations could intervene now and ease the humanitarian crisis taking place in Yemen. This means full support of UNICEF , the World Food Programme and other aid agencies operating there.

Now is the time for this intervention, rather than waiting till you have an epic-scale humanitarian disaster. Enough warnings have been sounded.

Article first published as Could Yemen be the Next Somalia? on Blogcritics.

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