IRC's Miliband warns Yemen crisis could worsen as access woes deepen

David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee. Photo by: Marla Aufmuth / TED / CC BY-NC

WASHINGTON — After U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres earlier this week called Yemen “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” leading aid boss David Miliband has warned things could get even worse as humanitarian groups continue to be stymied by access issues that prevent them reaching those most in need.

“It’s got bad, but it could get worse,” said Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, during a conversation on Yemen at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s important that in the humanitarian world we don’t only work on things that have gotten really, really bad, but we’re working on things that could get worse.”

Some of the most dire civilian consequences from the war in Yemen aren’t coming from air strikes and direct armed conflict, but from lack of access to necessary food and health services. According to the IRC, more people have died in Yemen from starvation and preventable diseases than from conduct of war. Seventy-nine percent of the population in Yemen is now in need of humanitarian aid and 9.3 million people are being denied life-saving health services to which they have the right under international law.

Food and medical supply shortages caused by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition blockade of Red Sea ports have deadly consequences when basic medical supplies cannot enter the country, leaving state-run facilities without what they need to fight both communicable and non-communicable disease.

“This humanitarian disaster is not an accident. People talk about ‘access’ problems, as if the problem is that people are hard to reach. No. The problem is that they are made hard to reach,” Miliband said. “The conflict is in fact notable for its crimes as well as its tragedy. This is a man-made conflict with very deep roots and very, very acute consequences.”

Once goods do make it inside the country, a gauntlet of checkpoints drastically slows down the ability of humanitarian organizations to efficiently disperse aid to people who need it the most. Miliband said that for IRC teams to travel the 300 miles from Aden to Sana’a, they must pass through more than 70 checkpoints — an average of one checkpoint every 4.3 miles. It can take three to six weeks of planning to get one IRC truck on the road.

Along with widespread destruction of the country’s basic infrastructure, the rising price of gas makes pumping water more expensive. Lack of access to safe water and sanitation has led to the largest cholera outbreak in history, with more than 1 million suspected cases. Humanitarian organizations are forced to spend more funds on trucking water around the country, depleting already strapped budgets, because more than half of the Yemeni population doesn’t have access to clean water.

Because of the blockade, Yemeni fuel imports have dropped by half. Miliband said $50,000 previously covered 90 days of supply transport for IRC, but now it only covers 20 days.

“We are stretched liked every other humanitarian organization on the ground by a really extraordinary and acute degree of need, of political crisis, and frankly of conflict,” Miliband said.

On Tuesday, the U.N. raised $2.01 billion in humanitarian aid at a high-level pledging conference in Geneva. That fell short of the $2.96 billion goal, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledging $500 million each. The U.K. pledged $239.7 and the U.S. pledged $87 million.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.