A woman puts her malnourished son on a scale at a malnutrition intensive care unit in the Red Sea port city of Houdeidah yesterday. Image Credit: Reuters

Geneva: Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe is set to worsen as the war has ruined the economy and is stopping food supplies getting through, driving the country to the brink of famine, the top UN aid official in the country told Reuters.

“Throughout the whole of this country kids are dying,” said Jamie McGoldrick. UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen.

Nearly two years of war between a Saudi-led Arab coalition and the Iran-backed Al Houthi movement has left more than half of Yemen’s 28 million people “food insecure”, with 7 million of them enduring hunger, according to the United Nations.

Al Houthis have been widely blamed for stalling efforts to reach a political solution and prolonging the crisis.

In the latest setback, Yemen’s biggest traders have stopped new wheat imports due to a crisis at the central bank, documents seen by Reuters show.

Already, eight out of 10 children are stunted by malnutrition and every 10 minutes a child dies due to preventable diseases, UN agency figures show. To scrape by, several families often rely on one salary-earner, and child marriage is increasing, with girls married off at the age of 15 on average, and often younger.

The UN estimates that 18.8 million people need some form of humanitarian aid but it struggles to deliver supplies, partly because of the war and partly due to a lack of funding. The disruption of wheat shipments will exacerbate the problem.

“We know that early next year we will face significant problems,” said McGoldrick, who described the economy as “shredded”.

Almost half of Yemen’s 22 governorates are already officially rated as being in an emergency food situation, he said. That is four on a five-point scale, where five is famine.

“I know there are some worrying developments and the deterioration we’ve seen in the economy and the health services and the ability to supply food would only give us an estimate that things are going to get much worse,” McGoldrick said.

The UN has been conducting a new food assessment in preparation for a new humanitarian appeal in 2017, when it will ask donors for life-saving help for 8 million people. But a famine may still not be officially declared.

“Technically these things are easily measured but in reality using the F-word is something that very few people will use because it’s so emotive. I would say it’s not likely to happen, my personal view.” “Famine” means more than two people dying per day for every 10,000 in the population, or about 5,500 deaths per day across a country of Yemen’s size, according to a Reuters calculation. The current “emergency” across much of Yemen still means 1-2 deaths per 10,000, suggesting thousands may die of hunger every day.