Tomorrow afternoon (21 September), the Security Council will have a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Yemen by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock.
Fighting has escalated around Hodeidah since the Houthis’ failure to attend the Geneva political consultations earlier this month, and Yemen’s already devastated economy has worsened after its currency, the rial, fell sharply in value at the end of August. A group of Council members—Bolivia, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland and Sweden—that regularly coordinates and takes joint positions on humanitarian dimensions of the Yemen conflict had raised the idea with the UK of a briefing with OCHA due to these developments. The UK, which is the penholder on Yemen, made the formal request this morning.
It seems that in seeking a meeting tomorrow, the group wanted to draw attention to these developments, which could make Yemen’s humanitarian crisis even worse, before the high-level week of the UN General Assembly next week when it might be more difficult to organise a Council session, if the situation further deteriorates. The group appears to have also felt that a meeting on the humanitarian situation would be timely ahead of some of next week’s bilateral discussions and high-level meetings.
Immediately following the unsuccessful Geneva consultations, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition intensified military operations around Hodeidah, reigniting concerns that the coalition will either attack the city,or seek to impose a siege. Yemen imports most of its food, fuel and medicine, and 70 percent of these imports enter through Hodeidah port, making it a lifeline for the country. The UAE has clearly signaled that it will re-launch an offensive against the Houthi-held city, following a pause over the summer to give more time to UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ political efforts. Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash announced on 12 September through Twitter that the Houthi “no-show” at Geneva proves the need to liberate Hodeidah, a point that the UAE reiterated in a 14 September letter to the Council which stated that “the liberation of Hodeidah is critical to re-engaging the Houthis in peace talks” (S/2018/847).
Lowcock is expected to provide an update on the escalation, which OCHA has been monitoring. Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande issued a warning on 13 September that “hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance in Hodeidah”. An 18 September report by OCHA on Hodeidah noted that since 12 September armed clashes on the main road connecting Hodeidah and Sana’a had effectively closed the road, leaving only the northern road out of Hodeidah to Sana’a open. The Red Sea Mills, which store 45,000 metric tonnes of grain that can feed three million people for one month, have also been made inaccessible by the fighting, and OCHA has raised concerns that they could be damaged. Lowcock is likely to highlight, as he has previously, that a battle for the city of nearly 600,000 residents could cause heavy civilian casualties and significantly worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis if the port is closed, damaged or can no longer serve its role as the main entry point for food and other humanitarian assistance to the capital, Sana’a, and other regions in northern Yemen, where 80 percent of Yemenis live.
Members may express similar concerns, well aware of the potential consequences of an offensive, underlining the importance of the port remaining operational and of unimpeded access for critical commercial and humanitarian supplies. Several members may say, as they did during last week’s briefing with Martin Griffiths on the Geneva consultations (S/PV.8348), that the failure at Geneva should not be used as a reason to escalate fighting.
Lowcock is also likely to address the economic situation. The Yemeni rial declined by over 17 percent during a week-long period towards the end of August, resulting in sudden price increases in basic foodstuffs and triggering widespread protests in southern Yemen. OCHA’s 6 September situation report on Yemen noted that if the depreciation of the Yemeni rial continues, a further 3.5 million people may become food insecure and an additional 2 million may face a heightened risk of famine, adding to the 8.4 million people already considered at risk. Save the Children released a statement yesterday warning that a disruption of food supplies through Hodeidah and the collapsing economy could push an additional one million children to the brink of starvation.
In raising concerns about the economy, members may note that the worsening economic situation further hurts prospects for a political solution. They may encourage the parties to agree on confidence-building measures, which the Special Envoy has been discussing with the parties, to address economic issues. The decline of the rial by 180 percent since the war’s start in 2015, and the non-payment or infrequent provision of salaries for two million civil servants over the last two years has reduced Yemenis’ purchasing power and people’s ability to feed themselves, directly contributing to making this the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.