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Yemen facing humanitarian catastrophe – UNICEF

National Yemen

An old Yemeni man eating dry bred

Yemen is facing a humanitarian catastrophe as an explosion of violence strains a country that is already one of the poorest in the world, Yemen representative for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said Tuesday.

People in the capital Sanaa are very scared and the country is in desperate need of water and fuel, Geert Cappelaere said.

“This country is absolutely in dire need of humanitarian assistance,” he said.

“We hope that a solution to the political stalemate will come soon, but even if it comes this is not an end to the problems. We cannot emphasise that enough. Forty percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the repercussions of this are just huge.”

Analysts say Saleh’s absence could help a peaceful transition of power although much could go wrong.

Cappelaere said the insecurity was threatening to exacerbate the malnutrition crisis in Yemen where half of children already have stunted growth — the highest rate in the world.

“Malnutrition levels are horrendous. Food prices are going up so malnutrition levels that are already high are going up too,” he told Reuters by phone from Sanaa.

Schools have also closed so children cannot sit exams, which will jeopardise their future opportunities, he said.

Cappelaere said fuel, which is vital for trucking supplies as well as pumping water, was in such short supply that the United Nations is trying to negotiate with Saudi Arabia to access fuel for humanitarian operations.

The United Nations and humanitarian agencies are also planning to increase a $225 million (137 million pound) appeal for Yemen launched at the beginning of the year which is 56-percent funded.

Violence has displaced thousands of people, most recently in the south where al Qaeda forces seized the city of Zinjibar.

U.N. agencies are already helping 15,000 people uprooted by the fighting but fear the numbers could rise to 40,000. Most of the displaced are women and children.

CHOLERA OUTBREAK

Cappelaere said people in Sanaa have moved out to villages, putting a strain on areas that are already underdeveloped.

“The move to the rural areas is positive for the time-being because people are fleeing violence and insecurity, but it can turn very bad, very quickly because the absorption capacity in rural areas is not going to be unlimited.”

He said the chronic fuel crisis across the country was making it hard for aid agencies to continue supporting people.

“For example, we at UNICEF are responsible for trucking water. But you need a lot of fuel to pump the water from the ground and to transport it.

“Yemen has faced a water crisis for 15 to 20 years. People have hardly any access. Sixty percent of Sanaa’s population get water from trucks not from the mains.”

He said there had already been a cholera outbreak in the south where fighting had forced people to use unsafe water.

Cappelaere, one of very few international aid workers left in Yemen, said his staff were extremely frightened and some had lost loved-ones in the fighting.

WFP officials recorded sharp rises in the cost of food in Yemen since January, the WFP’s representative in Yemen Gian Carlo Cirri told Reuters in an interview.

“The insecurity and transport disruptions cause food shortages which lead to increases and over-shooting of food prices,” said Cirri, speaking by phone from Sanaa.

“We are close to food prices having doubled on average since last year when it comes to key commodities such as wheat flour, vegetable oil and sugar,” he added.

“There is a sharp deterioration of the food security situation in Yemen.”

The disruption to local supplies has exacerbated regional rises in food prices, which helped spark some of the protests that have swept through the Arab world, sweeping the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt from power.

The cost of wheat flour rose by 26 percent in Yemen’s urban areas and by 38 percent in rural areas from January to May, according to WFP data.

Rice prices jumped by 30 percent in urban areas and 67 percent on the countryside over the same period, the WFP said.

Cirri said the conflict was worsening an already serious situation in Yemen.

“More than 12 percent of the population is severely food insecure. These people are not eating enough in terms of daily kilo calorie intake, and when it comes to diversity of the diet, it is extremely poor,” he said.

(For more humanitarian news see www.trust.org/alertnet)