Interview: Geert Cappelaere of UNICEF on the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen

“Don’t be afraid, we are not going to harm you, we are here to take care of you,” says Hana to the little girl who clutches her doll, afraid of the strangers who have come to her house. Do they want to take her away from her mom? But Hana and her colleague are enumerators and are here to see if little Fatima is malnourished, if she needs treatment. Sadly a quick measurement of her arm with a special tape shows she is much thinner than she should be at her age. “Fatima has severe malnutrition,” says Hana. “We have to refer her immediately to the outpatient therapeutic center so she can get appropriate care.” Rasha Al-Ardi/UNICEF Hodeidah/2011

Most of the spotlight on Yemen is focusing on whether embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh should be given medical treatment in the United States. Tragically lost in this debate are millions of Yemenis who are suffering from hunger, malnutrition, and disease.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that over 7 million Yemenis (1/3 of the population) suffer from hunger. This figure is believed to be even higher considering the past year of unrest and violence in the country. Malnutrition rates among children are high, causing stunted physical and mental growth or even leading to death.

This year of political turmoil and protests against long-time president Saleh has led to shortages of basic goods and increased food prices. Aid agencies, who are low on funding, are struggling to keep up with the increasing calls for help.

Yemen is on the verge of a humanitarian disaster and little is being done to heed the warnings. The level of human suffering has the potential to plunge the country into complete chaos which would easily destroy hopes for peace and strengthen the Al-Qaida branch there.

As President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor John Brennan says, “As we have seen from Afghanistan in the 1990s to Yemen, Somalia and the tribal areas of Pakistan today, al-Qa’ida and its affiliates often thrive where there is disorder.”

UNICEF is trying desperately to provide aid to the most vulnerable segment of Yemen’s population: Children. In the following interview Geert Cappelaere, director of UNICEF in Yemen, discusses the fast-developing humanitarian crisis and how we can take action.

The recent United Nations report revealed a 31.7% Global Acute Malnutrition in Yemen’s Hodeidah Governorate. Isn’t that a malnutrition rate similar to the worst areas of starvation inside Somalia? Could Yemen be the next Somalia?

Yemen, unfortunately, has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world with close to 60% of children reported as stunted. In some parts of Yemen, global acute malnutrition rates are indeed equal than in parts of drought and famine struck Horn of Africa, with 30% of those under 5 years of age being wasted (globally acute malnourished). Severely acute malnutrition levels are approaching 10% in certain pockets of the country. So the levels of chronic and acute malnutrition amongst Yemeni children are unprecedented in most part of the world.

Certainly, Yemen could be the next Somalia and very soon, if the world keeps watching with no action. UNICEF has been ringing the bell very loudly that we do not want the situation of children to turn into a humanitarian disaster.

Do UNICEF and other aid agencies have a full picture what is happening with hunger and malnutrition especially in rural, more isolated areas? Could the Hodeidah malnutrition findings tragically be the tip of the iceberg in Yemen?

UNICEF and humanitarian workers on the ground have made it clear that Yemen, which is already chronically underdeveloped, is on the verge of a humanitarian disaster. The situation is much worse than what people could imagine. Also our collective response has not been up to the challenge. Limited funding has led to a reduction in assistance, negatively impacting the nutrition and food security status of families already facing protracted displacement.

The recent findings of the UNICEF survey coming from Hodeidah are consistent with those findings coming from Hajja, for instance, and other parts of the country. Nearly one third of children surveyed suffer from either moderate or severe acute malnutrition – of which nearly 10 percent were severe cases. Wherever we go, wherever we survey, wherever we assess, we come to the same conclusions: levels of acute malnutrition in Yemen are incredibly high.

Yemen has suffered through war in the North between the government and rebels and recent fighting in the South with militants. This on top of tremendous political instability and violence this year. What kind of psychological toll is this taking on children growing up amid such displacement and violence?

Yemen is a country where children represent more than half of the population, which means more than 12 million. They bear the brunt of underdevelopment and a looming disaster. UNICEF is very concerned about the impact on children of years of underdevelopment, multiple wars and more recently a deep political crisis.

Even after intensive efforts by UNICEF, government and partners to bring children back to schools, nearly a quarter of a million children across Yemen face difficulties attending school. More than 180 schools in different parts of the country have been occupied or attacked by armed forces and armed groups, or are occupied by displaced communities.

The situation has significantly impacted the psychosocial well-being of children. In the conflict-affected northern governorates, one in three children reported feeling unsafe, sad or frustrated, suffered from diminished hope, fear, anger and hatred as well as experiencing difficulty sleeping. One in four experienced difficulties concentrating, and establishing trustful relationships. A household bi-weekly survey shows a sharply increased level of fear in places like Hodeidah when violence erupted in Sanaa – asserting that conflict affects all children throughout the country in some way or another.

How is UNICEF planning to aid children in Yemen during 2012? Do you have the needed resources?

Our humanitarian action plan for 2012 focuses on mainly relief operation giving a top priority to the fight against malnutrition. We have extended investments in WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene for schools), Education, Health and Child Protection. While keeping the focus on immediate relief operations, we shall not miss a single opportunity for re-engaging on mid- and longer term development.

UNICEF doubled its funding requirement in 2012 from that of last year to USD 49.6 million. We need all possible assistance to have it funded in a timely manner.

Tell us about the significance of plumpy’nut for Yemeni children.

It is one of the Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic Food (RUTF) life-saving food products that are designed to address the therapeutic needs of severely malnourished children. The fact that it does not need any preparation when giving it to children has tremendously been instrumental to reach out to remote areas where there are no health facilities and high rate of illiteracy among parents. Any adult can feed a malnourished child with ease, however, health workers need to follow on the progress and recovery to prevent any relapse.

How can people reach out and help UNICEF aid children Yemen? Can someone get involved?

Any possible help is welcome. I am glad to announce that individuals and organizations can make donation to Yemeni children online through this link.

We need also that the voice of Yemeni children is heard and that media is taking the lead to inform donors about the dire humanitarian needs in this country.

Is there a certain story or family in Yemen that stands out in your mind when you think of the plight of the country?

Well. They are numerous, and stories are generally similar. I would rather focus on the entire cohort of under-five children- who are about 4 million – who all need equal attention and care.

You can donate to help Yemen at UNICEF USA.

Article first published as Interview: Geert Cappelaere of UNICEF on the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen on Blogcritics.

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