Yemen on Brink of 'Extreme Humanitarian Catastrophe'

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Yemen is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe as some 16 million citizens have no clean drinking water and UN-brokered peace talks were postponed indefinitely, relief organization Oxfam said Tuesday.

Oxfam said that the water shortage was affecting almost two-thirds of the country's population, raising the specter of an epidemic of waterborne diseases such as cholera, as desperate citizens drink from unsanitary sources and unprotected wells.

Late Sunday, Yemeni officials said that ceasefire talks scheduled to take place in Geneva this week had been postponed.

More than 1,400 people have been killed in fighting in Yemen since 19 March, according to the UN. In late March, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of airstrikes against the Houthis, an Iranian-backed Shia military force which had forced president Hadi out of the capital Sanaa last September.

The country's water problems existed long before the current wave of conflict broke out. Prior to the recent outbreak of fighting, some 13 million Yemenis did not have access to clean drinking water. Only 40% of Sanaa households are connected to the municipal water supply, with the figures likely much lower in rural areas where 70% of Yemenis live.

Some estimates predict that the capital could run out of viable water resources in the next two years as groundwater levels continue to decrease by four to six metres per year. Existing groundwater levels have plummeted by more than five times in the past 40 years.

The country is also suffering a food shortage due to an ongoing blockade of its ports. Yemen imports more than 90% of its food, including the majority of its rice and wheat, and last month had around six months worth of supplies remaining.

Saudi forces have imposed a naval blockade on Yemeni ports in order to prevent the shipment of arms and fighters to the Houthis. However, the blockade has also deterred commercial shipments of food and fuel, meaning that the price of petrol has risen by as much as 10 times in parts of Yemen, according to Oxfam.

The fuel shortages also mean that water, food and other aid supplies cannot be transported around the country to areas of greatest need.

Hisham al-Omeisy, an independent political analyst based in Sanaa, says that the conflict has crippled areas including Aden and Taiz, two of Yemen's largest cities and Houthi strongholds.

"When you transport water, you need gas and fuel. Because of the severe shortage of gas, usually you'd buy a tank of water for 3,000-4,000 rials, whereas now you'd buy it for triple the price and because of the poverty rate in those areas, people cannot afford it," says Omeisy.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, with a GDP per capita of $3,900 (€3,600) - in contrast, Saudi Arabia has a GDP per capita of $52,800 (€48,500). Some 45% of the population is food insecure.

While Omeisy says that Sanaa has adequate food and water supplies for the meantime, he foresees the situation as continuing to deteriorate so long as commercial vessels are blocked from entering Yemeni ports.

"If the blockade is not lifted there's going to be an extreme humanitarian catastrophe in Sanaa as well," he says.

The postponement of ceasefire talks comes on the back of a five-day ceasefire which ended on 17 May. The talks were reportedly postponed after the Houthis rejected calls by president Hadi to abide by UN Security Council Resolution 2216 on Yemen, which would effectively mean pulling out of Sanaa and desisting from aggression against government troops.

Earlier today, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed the need for a permanent ceasefire and praised the role of Oman in seeking to broker a truce between the various parties.

Oman has remained relatively neutral throughout the conflict. It is the only one of the six Gulf Arab states not to join the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis and the Omani government has previously relayed messages between Riyadh and the Houthi leadership.

"I think Oman is the most likely successful mediator in the conflict, based on its refusal to join the coalition in Yemen and its general good relations in the entire region," says Miriam Goldman, an independent Yemen analyst based in Tel Aviv, Israel.