SANAA, Jan. 20 (Saba) - The economic crisis is more dangerous than battles: hunger kills more people because we cannot flee it.
But aid experts and U.N. officials say a more insidious form of warfare is also being waged in Yemen, an economic war that is exacting a far greater toll on civilians and now risks tipping the country into a famine of catastrophic proportions.
Relentless Saudi-led bombing in Yemen is not the only form of assault pushing millions to the brink of famine: the Hadi government is also spearheading a campaign of “economic warfare” as it refuses to pay civil servants and the national currency collapses.
The four-year-old conflict is threatening half of Yemen’s 28m population with starvation, according to the UN, which says children are already dying of hunger.
Pressure is mounting on the Saudi-backed Hadi government to ease its economic offensive as food shortages are exacerbated by air strikes around Hodeidah, a key port, and the west takes a harder line against Saudi Arabia following the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
Those measures have inflicted a slow-burn toll: infrastructure destroyed, jobs lost, a weakening currency and soaring prices.
In 2016, the Saudi-backed Hadi government transferred the operations of the central bank , to the southern city of Aden.
Economic warfare takes other forms, too. In a recent paper, Martha Mundy, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, analyzed coalition airstrikes in Yemen, finding that their attacks on bridges, factories, fishing boats and even fields suggested that they aimed to destroy food production and distribution.
It’s not just bombs, bullets and artillery shells that threaten Yemen’s children, this is a conflict that also kills by stealth. Economic strangulation is being used by the Saudi-led coalition as a weapon of war, targeting jobs, infrastructure, food markets and the provision of basic services.
The UN has described Yemen as “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster”. Almost two-thirds of the population need emergency support. The food system is collapsing, pushing the country to the brink of famine.
Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to Yemen who is leading efforts to broker a ceasefire, said the central bank needed to “put the brakes on famine” by urgently pumping money into the economy. The scale of the impending famine, which officials say is entirely man-made, highlights the extent to which the economic policies of the Saudi-backed government are causing suffering alongside coalition bombardments.
Yemenis are contending with a war-related plunge in the value of the currency against the dollar, which has made it harder for food importers to bring in goods and forced them to raise the prices of what they can procure.
This is an income famine,” said Lise Grande, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. “The key to stopping it is to ensure that people have enough money to buy what they need to survive".
People think famine is just a lack of food,” said Alex de Waal, author of “Mass Starvation” which analyzes recent man-made famines. “But in Yemen it’s about a war on the economy."
The priority should be to stabilize the falling currency, she said, and to ensure that traders and shipping companies can import the food that Yemenis need.
Above all, she added, “the fighting has to stop".
The road from Sana’a to the port of Hodeidah, one of Yemen’s main arteries, bears the scars of economic warfare, counted three bridges destroyed by Saudi airstrikes.
The port itself is a ghost town, Saudi bombs have destroyed the five cranes that once unloaded ships carrying 80% of Yemen’s imports, along with grain storage silos. Over 20,000 people have lost their jobs.
The UN has been pushing for confidence building measures, including a mechanism for the central bank to pay wages.
Mr Griffiths told the Financial Times that “international urging” could encourage the government to make the central bank act, including by making dollars available to importers.
Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, a US-based research organization, said starvation in Yemen was being used “as a tool of war”.
He said many fields, fishing boats and food production facilities had been bombed by the coalition, he also said restrictions on remittances to the country from Yemenis working in Gulf states were being used as a weapon.
And in the hushed hunger wards, ailing infants hover between life and death. Of nearly 2 million malnourished children in Yemen, 400,000 are considered critically ill — a figure projected to rise by one quarter in the coming months.
"We are being crushed,” said Dr. Mekkia Mahdi at the health clinic in Aslam, an impoverished northwestern town that has been swamped with refugees fleeing the fighting in Hodeida, an embattled port city 90 miles to the south.
Only two famines have been officially declared by the United Nations in the past 20 years, in Somalia and South Sudan. A U.N.-led assessment due in mid-November will determine how close Yemen is to becoming the third.
To stave it off, aid workers are not appealing for shipments of relief aid but for urgent measures to rescue the battered economy.
It is economic strangulation and war that is driving the country towards famine, many more Yemeni children are dying every day from lack of food, medicine and clean water than from fighting.
Over 400,000 children are at imminent risk of starvation, most of them will never see a health clinic or receive treatment, many of those who survive will be affected by stunting and poor health for the rest of their lives.
The international community has responded to Yemen’s crisis by pledging humanitarian aid. Humanitarian aid is vital – but it is not enough. Western countries, including the UK, could – and should – be doing far more to broker a peace agreement, they should also hold Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition accountable for potential war crimes and violations of humanitarian law.
Yemen also desperately needs international support for an anti-famine , reconstructing infrastructure and financing the salaries of public workers, the World Bank could play a critical role in these areas.
Written by Mona Zaid