TSG IntelBrief: Cholera and Famine in Yemen
July 21, 2017

Cholera and Famine in Yemen


Bottom Line Up Front:

• Yemen is struggling to deal with three simultaneous crises: a cholera epidemic, a looming famine, and a two-year-old civil war.

• Nearly 7 million Yemenis qualify as severely food-insecure, and the country’s cholera outbreak has been described as the ‘worst in the world’.

• The country’s civil war shows no signs of abating in the short-term.

• Divergent interests among the Arab members of the anti-Houthi coalition suggest it may lack the unity of purpose necessary to achieve a strategic victory.


Yemen is becoming increasingly reliant on life support from the international community as it suffers from a trifecta of humanitarian crises: an outbreak of cholera, and unfolding famine, and a raging civil war that is fueled and funded by competing regional powers. With more than 330,000 infected and over 1,700 deaths since the epidemic began in April, the World Health Organization (WHO) has described the situation as ‘the worst cholera outbreak in the world’. Since the start of the civil war in March 2015, the country’s healthcare infrastructure has virtually collapsed, and UNICEF has stepped in with emergency funding to pay the salaries of Yemen’s dwindling supply of medical professionals. On July 14, the WHO warned of the increasing risk that Yemen’s cholera epidemic could spread to Saudi Arabia during the upcoming annual Hajj pilgrimage, although the statement made clear that Saudi Arabia is ‘well-prepared’ to handle any health-related challenges associated with the event. The warning serves as a stark reminder that, in a globalized world, long-running civil wars and the destruction of local healthcare systems can eventually pose a threat to global health.

The cholera epidemic is only compounding the looming famine in Yemen, which has thus far been prevented only by the massive provision of foreign aid. Currently, there are around 17 million food-insecure individuals in the country, with nearly 7 million qualifying as severely food-insecure, meaning that their existence is entirely dependent upon external assistance. Despite Yemen’s dire humanitarian needs, only around half of the UN’s $2.1 billion request for Yemen has been pledged for 2017.

At the root of Yemen’s humanitarian crises is the ongoing civil war between the coalition supporting Yemen’s internationally-recognized president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, against an alliance of Houthi rebels and forces of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The conflict shows no sign of abating in the short-term; Houthi-Saleh forces remain solidly in control of the capital, Sanaa.

Divergent interests in Yemen among the Arab members of the anti-Houthi coalition suggest it may lack the unity of purpose necessary to achieve a strategic victory. Specifically, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) appears increasingly at odds with the Hadi administration, which is based in the southern port city of Aden. In May, growing concerns over the UAE’s expanding influence in southern Yemen peaked after Hadi fired several UAE-backed officials, including the governor of Aden province. The dismissals prompted the officials, who are high-ranking members of the movement for an independent South Yemen, to establish a breakaway governing council, in a direct challenge to Hadi’s authority. Since its establishment, the council has been attempting to build momentum and support for the southern secessionist movement, holding a series of mass demonstrations in the city of Aden, as well as meetings with foreign government officials. Tensions between the UAE and the Hadi government have also been strained by reports released in June by Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press which allege that UAE-backed forces in Yemen had ‘arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, tortured, and abused dozens of people’ in the country. The allegations prompted the Hadi administration to harshly condemn the UAE and launch an investigation into the UAE’s operations in Yemen.

Reports have begun circulating that suggest the UAE would like to see Hadi removed from office, and the anti-Houthi coalition’s support thrown behind the son of former president Saleh, Ahmed Saleh, who currently resides in Abu Dhabi. It is unclear how such a strategy could be pursued, given the Saleh family’s current alliance with the Houthi rebels, or even if such a strategy is being seriously considered. But the reports highlight the shaky political ground on which the Hadi government rests, both in terms of its domestic political support and its regional and international backing. The triad of crises plaguing Yemen has now become fundamentally unmanageable by any single power in the country. Without political compromise among the warring parties and their sponsors, stability in Yemen will remain out of reach.


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