SANA’A – In the Yemeni coastal town of Al-Tuhayta, 19 months into a devastating civil war, Futayni Ali watches helplessly as his five children complain of hunger.
“We couldn’t even buy shrouds to bury those of us who have already died from hunger,” says the fisherman in his 50s, referring to other town residents.
Ali used to make $30 (R405) a day from fishing in the Red Sea before the war between Houthi rebels and loyalists escalated in March last year with the intervention of a Saudi-led coalition.
But work stopped for Ali after the coalition started its military campaign including air strikes to push back the rebels, after they overran the capital Sana’a and advanced on other areas.
“We’re waiting for death to arrive. We can no longer do anything to feed our hungry children,” says the desperate father, who lives in the rebel-held western province of Hodeidah.
“We have sold all we had – even the beds we slept on and the plates we ate from.”
Almost 7,000 people, many of them civilians, have been killed and three million people displaced in the conflict since March last year, according to the UN.
READ: UN call to extend Yemen truce ignored
But in an impoverished country already suffering from widespread food insecurity before the war, hunger has also escalated with millions in need of food aid.
One and a half million children suffer from malnutrition, including 370,000 for whom it is so severe it weakens their immune system, the UN children’s agency says.
Hodeidah, where Ali and his family live, was Yemen’s poorest province even before the war. Today health authorities there warn of a “catastrophic situation due to starvation”.
The crisis is most visible in Ali’s hometown of Al-Tuhayta, where many have been reduced to skeletons with pale faces, sunken cheeks, and blank eyes.
“Around 5,000 people… could face death from hunger” in the town, warns town official Hassan Handiq.
In the provincial capital of Hodeidah, frail Saeeda – whose name ironically means happiness in Arabic –is struggling to stay alive.
“We have nothing left to eat,” the 19-year-old with protruding bones says, sitting on a wheelchair at a therapeutic feeding centre.
“We are slowly dying,” she says in a weak voice, her eyes reflecting her anguish.
“I want to go home.”
Wiped out https://t.co/5XLPSHLnTK
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) November 4, 2016
The UN food agency last week warned of alarming levels of hunger in Yemen, which already had one of the world’s highest levels of malnutrition before the war.
The World Food Programme said more than a third of children under five years old in Hodeidah showed signs of “acute malnutrition” – “more than double the emergency threshold of 15 percent”.
WFP Yemen director Torben Due has warned “an entire generation could be crippled by hunger”.
UN: At least 10 000 Yemeni children under the age of 5 died from preventable diseases since March 2015 #Yemen https://t.co/iDHviwKeWg
— David Maton (@tweetdavido) November 3, 2016
The World Health Organization has also warned that “shortages of food, medicine, and other basic commodities are… placing millions more people on the brink of starvation”.
It gave the example of a feeding centre in Hodeidah province alone where cases have increased by more than 70 percent since last year, the UN agency said.
Meanwhile, an outbreak of cholera nationwide has added to the plight of Yemen’s population of 26 million.
READ: UNICEF: War-torn Yemen hit by Cholera outbreak
One father in the south-western province of Taez – the scene of almost daily clashes – said he was shocked to discover his daughter had cholera.
“I didn’t notice (she was infected) until her case worsened and I took her to the emergencies,” 38-year-old Walid al-Haj told AFP by phone.
The UN has confirmed 71 cases and more than 2,000 suspected cases of the disease, which can prove fatal in up to 15 percent of untreated cases.
The disease is transmitted through contaminated drinking water and causes acute diarrhoea.
Failure to control #cholera outbreak could have immense public health consequences. Read @OCHAYemen situation report https://t.co/PeoEho9iLN pic.twitter.com/xqzQNb4SYc
— WHO Yemen (@WHOYemen) November 3, 2016
Cholera is also spreading in the rebel-held capital, where many people displaced by the conflict have arrived during the past year.
Mohammed Abdulwahed, a doctor in Sana’a, said Yemenis needed increased awareness about the disease.
“Most of the cases received at the hospital are in later stages of illness… Yemenis need awareness,” he said.
And cancer patients are also suffering from a shortage in medical supplies.
In August, the UN humanitarian office warned 40,000 cancer patients in Yemen would not receive needed medication due to banking restrictions impeding their import, after the depletion of foreign currency reserves in the central bank.
Afif al-Nabhi, director of the National Oncology Centre in Sana’a, reported “a severe shortage in chemical treatments… and other medical supplies” there.
He warned of a future “humanitarian disaster”.