Over the last year, the eyes of the world have occasionally turned to Yemen. And when they’ve turned, they’ve seen and wept at the crisis and desperation. But fixing focus has been harder. That focus is what is needed, according to Tearfund’s Middle East Response Director, Kieren Barnes.
With over 700,000 cases of cholera affecting over 90 per cent of the country, and a conflict that has devastated lives, and destroyed much of its infrastructure and economy, this is a nation on its knees.
I began by asking Kieren for an overview:
What are the big headlines we should know about today?
This remains the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. With everything else that's going on globally, this is still the worst situation, and one of the most under-resourced responses.
The scale of need is increasing, so we haven't got past that point yet, which is a big concern.
Employment levels have plummeted. There are no jobs. There's no food coming in. There's a lack of resources. Issues of not having enough safe water, etc, and therefore problems become worse because of that. People are hungry, people are thirsty, systems are not working.
Salaries for doctors and nurses aren't getting paid. So, as much as these people want to work to help their communities, they also need to feed their families. As much as they would want to help those who are sick, they themselves are struggling to provide food and support their own families.
'We shouldn't be in a situation where a preventable and treatable disease like cholera can get to the levels we’re seeing in Yemen.'
Kieren Barnes, Tearfund’s Middle East Response Director
Remind us: how did we get to this desperate situation?
We're looking at a conflict that's developed from multiple angles.
Civilians are caught up in the middle, and that's our biggest concern. Yemen is fractured into pieces, with different parts controlled by different groups.
Even things like food coming into the country, the supply lines for people to live and work, have all dried up.
So you’re saying it’s like the people are trapped in a pressure-cooker environment?
Yes, it is a like a pressure-cooker. People don't have options. They don't have the ability to leave. If you think about it, just simply geographically, it's incredibly hard. You can't go north to Saudi Arabia, to the east is desert and everything to the south is sea.
Added to that you've got the various conflicts in the area and the different groups who are fighting each other, it makes it almost impossible to leave.
The pressure on those communities to survive in this environment is very high; their coping mechanisms, their ability to handle this – they've all been depleted.
And then there’s the cholera outbreak on top of all this?
Yes, this is the largest cholera crisis recorded in one country in a single year. As we speak, the number of cases recorded this year in Yemen stands at 738,719. That is a shocking number in this day and age. We shouldn't be in a situation where a preventable and treatable disease like cholera can get to the levels we’re seeing in Yemen.
Our partners are setting up cholera treatment centres. We're not only responding to the cholera itself, but also working to prevent future cases. This is about making sure there is safe water to drink, and good latrines where the waste-water is dealt with appropriately.
We're trying to increase the number of partners we have on the ground. We're trying to increase our response and to reach into new areas. But it is challenging.
Famine hasn’t officially been declared, but getting access to food must be challenging as well?
As with tackling cholera, we're working to scale up our response in the area of food security. If you've got vulnerable people such as malnourished children, mothers and pregnant women, they are not going to be able to cope with cholera anywhere near as much as somebody who is better-nourished.
Our partners – who have specialised skills – are setting up therapeutic feeding centres to help deal with critical cases.
They are also providing six months’ worth of food to families who are affected by cholera and have malnourished children.
You said this is a man-made crisis, but is there an end in sight?
At this time, it’s hard to see an end in sight as the situation is still deteriorating. The conflict needs to be resolved. Until that happens, the situation will struggle to improve. This is a global crisis. It's not just about those inside Yemen. There are external factors that all feed into this.
A global crisis and a global responsibility?
Yes, there's a responsibility that countries are not stepping up to.
It's an ongoing and forgotten crisis. It's the biggest in the world, and we would advocate that this needs to be more highly prioritised globally. Countries need to take responsibility. That comes with funding the humanitarian response, and that comes with ending the conflict and the civilian casualties it’s leading to.
How encouraged are you by the courage of our partners?
I'm amazed by our partners. They have incredible resilience and commitment to these communities. We have partners who are based on the ground, who are Yemeni, who are local. They're committed to the Yemeni people, and we need to support them as much as we can. They need time to rest, but it's relentless, and there is no time, because this is life-saving. Their passion and their heart is overwhelming.
We don't want to give up, because we can't give up. If we do, then people will suffer, people will die. So this is a life-saving response. There's no option. We won’t stop.