Saudis to ease Yemen siege but millions to still suffer

Saudi Arabia’s decision to ease its blockade on Yemen does not go far enough, say aid and human rights groups pointing to the spectre of famine that looms over the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country.

The kingdom has said it will ease its blockade on rebel-held parts of the country from Thursday and allow “urgent humanitarian and relief materials” to pass through the Red Sea port of Hodeidah and the capital’s Sanaa international airport.

Prices are ridiculously high. Petrol, cooking gas, everything has shot up. The Saudis are not just blockading the Houthis, they’re blockading us, they’re blockading every man, woman and child.

Ahmed Alsharabi, Sanaa-based maths teacher

Saudi Arabia, which has been conducting an air campaign in Yemen since 2015, intensified its embargo on the country on November 5, closing all of the country’s land, sea and air ports after Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile towards the capital, Riyadh.

The kingdom said the blockade was a necessary precaution aimed at preventing weapons being smuggled into Yemen by its regional rival, Iran.

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Iran has rejected allegations of arming the Houthis, calling them “malicious, irresponsible, destructive and provocative”.

Save the Children’s Caroline Anning says any opening for humanitarian agencies was welcome but it “wouldn’t be enough to avert a potential famine”.

“We’re still waiting to see exactly what this announcement means,” she told Al Jazeera.

Saudi Arabia has not specified when or if it would ease a blockade on commercial access.

“At the moment, we welcome any opportunity to get life-saving aid into Yemen. However, the reality is it shouldn’t have taken more than two weeks of an arbitrary blockade for this to happen,” Anning said.

“During this time the humanitarian situation has worsened.

“Aid agencies such as ours and the UN are only able to provide a fraction of the food, fuel and water that is needed. It’s imperative that commercial supplies are able to get in as well.”

‘No cause for celebration’

The strategic port of Hodeidah, about 175km from Sanaa, has been under the control of Houthi rebels for more than two years, and used to be a key conduit for much-needed food and medicine imports.

Before the war, Yemen imported around 90 percent of its wheat and all of its rice to feed its population of about 28 million, and around 70 percent passed through Hodeidah.

But imports have since dwindled, leaving millions unsure of when their next meal will come.

WATCH: Saudi blockade on Yemen ‘a collective extermination’ (2:45)

“Prices are continuing to go up with families having to choose between buying clean water for their children or buying bread that day,” Anning told Al Jazeera.

“We’re facing a critical situation where there’s only small amount of food supplies left in warehouses and they’ll only last the next 4-8 weeks.”

Paolo Cernuschi, Yemen director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a New-York based relief group, said the easing of access restrictions was “no cause for celebration”.

“Even though tomorrow’s reopening of ports to humanitarian traffic will ease the flow of aid, it will still leave the population of Yemen in a worse situation than they were two weeks ago before the blockade started,” he said.

“Humanitarian aid alone cannot meet the needs of Yemenis who are unjustly bearing the brunt of this war. Access by commercial shipments of food and fuel must be resumed immediately, otherwise this action will do little to turn Yemen back from the brink of famine and crisis.”

Yemen has been devastated by more than two and a half years of war after Houthi rebels, believed to be backed by Iran, captured Sanaa, and overthrew President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government.

‘Everyone is suffering’

A Saudi-led coalition was formed in March 2015 to fight the Houthi rebels and army troops allied with them.

According to the UN, the conflict has killed at least 10,000 people, more than half of them civilians, and forced millions to seek food assistance.

“The price of flour has more than doubled since the start of the blockade,” Ayham Alghopari, a student at Sanaa University’s faculty of dentistry, told Al Jazeera.

WATCH: ‘Saudi Arabia’s blockade is a death sentence for all Yemenis’ (3:03)

“You can no longer buy car petrol on the open market, the price has more than doubled. It used to cost YR4,000 ($16) to fill up a small car; it now costs YR9,000 ($35).

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says the war has had a debilitating impact on the civilian population, with about 2.5 million people having no access to clean water and one in every 12 being severely malnourished.

“I can’t give the most simplest of things to my family,” Ahmed Alsharabi, a 40-year-old maths teacher in Sanaa, told Al Jazeera.

“Prices are ridiculously high. Petrol, cooking gas, everything has shot up. The Saudis are not just blockading the Houthis, they’re blockading us, they’re blockading every man, woman and child.”

Amnesty’s Yemen researcher Rasha Mohamed told Al Jazeera that humanitarian imports alone did not meet the needs of the population.

“Yemen needs monthly food imports of approximately 350,000 metric tons for survival, of which humanitarian imports are about 75,000 metric tonnes,” she said.

“This is far from sufficient to meet needs of the population. Full unfettered access for people and goods, commercial as well as humanitarian, is needed.”

Follow Al Jazeera’s Faisal Edroos on Twitter: @FaisalEdroos

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