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Yemen On 'The Brink Of Famine' After Saudi Blockade


We have some news from war-torn Yemen this morning. For more than two weeks, it's been nearly impossible for humanitarian aid to get into Yemen. That's because a coalition led by Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade on Yemen's ports and airspace. Now that move came after a missile was fired from Yemen toward Saudi Arabia's capital. Today, the Saudi Press Agency reports that the blockade has been partially lifted. We have on the line with us Paolo Cernuschi. He's the International Rescue Committee's Yemen country director. Hey, Paolo.

PAOLO CERNUSCHI: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KING: Thanks for being here. So obviously, a lot of people in Yemen are suffering. What did this Saudi-led blockade mean for the humanitarian situation there?

CERNUSCHI: What it's meant is it's meant limited access to basic necessities, to fuel. I mean, the fuel shortages we're experiencing right now are directly impacting our capacity to deliver. We have mobile health teams that will be grounded in a matter of weeks. And that's close to 10,000 people per week that we serve that we won't be able to serve unless we manage to get fuel supplies. And water trucking that we provide to 50,000 people per week is likely to reduce in numbers because of that lack of access to fuel. So we're seeing a significant challenge to the delivery of humanitarian aid right now.

KING: Fuel, water and health care. Talk to me about food.

CERNUSCHI: So food is - there's still some food, some stocks available in markets and in contingency reserves. But those need to be replenished soonest, and those can't be replenished by humanitarian aid alone. I mean, Yemen requires monthly food imports of 10,000 or 15,000 metric tons of food, and humanitarian aid only covers 20 percent of that. So commercial shipments are as important as humanitarian aid right now.

KING: So if the ports and airports are now open, if the blockade we're hearing has at least been partially lifted, does this mean that aid operations can go back to normal?

CERNUSCHI: It will simplify our work to an extent. But the bottom line here is that we can't celebrate this partial easing of restrictions. Even though the reopening or the planned reopening of ports 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. And as I mentioned, humanitarian aid alone is not enough to meet the needs of the Yemeni people. And we need commercial shipments of food and fuel to be resumed alongside humanitarian aid, otherwise we'll be doing little to turn Yemen back from the brink of famine.

KING: Yeah, Yemen is an import-heavy country. It does import a lot of things, including food. We've done some reporting here at NPR on the conditions in hospitals in Yemen. They were not good. When we were reporting on them, there were outbreaks of cholera - obviously, as you say, people on the brink of famine. How are the hospitals doing at this point?

CERNUSCHI: The situation is deteriorating by the day. We've got basic supplies, medicines and vaccines that are due to run out - some in a matter of days, some in a matter of weeks. Due to lack of fuel, generators and water pumps are shutting down in some of the health clinics and hospitals that we work in. And I don't need to tell you what it means to operate a hospital without a generator or access to clean water. The disaster is huge.

KING: Paolo, I wish we had more than a couple of seconds to answer this one, but what do you think it's going to take to get Yemen back from the brink?

CERNUSCHI: It needs a political solution. It needs peace talks that are not stymied by impossible preconditions and the understanding that humanitarian aid is not the solution but a political one is.

KING: Political solution. Paolo Cernuschi is with the International Rescue Committee. We reached him on Skype. Paolo, thank you so much.

CERNUSCHI: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.