Dirty water, cholera and malnutrition: deadly mix afflicting Yemeni children

(Photo by Observer and WHO)
More than 10,000 civilians have died in the war that has torn Yemen apart since it started in 2015. The country is now engulfed wide-scale humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 2.2 million children suffering from severe malnutrition and much of the population reduced to drinking dirty water. As a result, starting last May, Yemen has been experiencing the “worst cholera epidemic in the world,” according to the United Nations. It’s a situation proving deadly for children, the most vulnerable victims of this conflict.

Close to 300,000 people in Yemen have contracted cholera, of whom 1,700 died, according to numbers reported in June. This epidemic has, in large part, been caused by the poor quality of the country’s drinking water, which is often contaminated with fecal matter. Moreover, wartorn Yemen lacks the resources to purify the water. And, when people fall ill, they often have no access to medical care. This disease, which is easy to treat, is most deadly when contracted by vulnerable people, like the elderly and, especially. children

“To date, 297,438 suspected #cholera cases and 1706 associated deaths have been reported in 22 governorates in #Yemen”, according to a tweet by the World Health Organisation. According to UNICEF, close to half of these cases involve children.
"They drink this water because they don’t have another choice”

Some friends and I decided to travel to Nihm province, says Ahmad Algohbary. "While we were making our way through a mountainous region, we came across a group of displaced people who had fled Nihm, where there are ongoing clashes between the Houthi rebels and government forces, backed by the international coalition led by Saudi Arabia. We learned that there were 56 displaced families who were sleeping in a makeshift campsites there.

These people don’t have anything. No food, no water, no money. They sleep in makeshift tents and receive little aide. Sometimes, people bring them a little bit of food, but they wake up the next day, starving as ever. I was shocked when I saw that they were drinking the filthy water from the swamp and I took photos to document these terrible conditions.

"Please show the world what kind of conditions we are living in"

At first, the people I met in the makeshift camp were shy, especially the women. So I told them that I would only take a picture of them from a distance. When I told them that I wanted to post my photos online, they gave me their permission and said: “Please show the world what kind of conditions we are living in. We don’t have anything and no one is helping us. We need potable water urgently. Tell NGOs that we need help; we need water and tents." In this makeshift camp, these displaced people are drinking water unfit for consumption because they don’t have any other choice. At least three children there have already fallen ill with cholera.
"In #Yemen, people have no choice but to drink dirty water, continuing the cycle of #cholera. Cholera flourishes in a weakened health system,” explained the World Health Organisation in a tweet.
The conflict has meant that close to 14.5 million Yemenis-- equivalent to roughly half of the country’s entire population-- don’t have access to clean and potable drinking water, according to the United Nations. Across the country, NGOs are working night and day to truck in clean drinking water.

The bombing of water reserves

In March 2015, Shi’ite Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, took control of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. Since then, the rebels have been carrying out a particularly violent urban war against Yemeni forces, who are supported by their neighbour, Saudi Arabia, and other regional and Western powers, including the United States.
On January 8, 2016, a desalination plant located to the north of the town of Mocha was bombed. The investigators at the website bellingcat looked into this attack, though they were unable to determine if the Saudi coalition was responsible. The website has gathered a list of previous bombings that destroyed facilities used to store food or distribute drinking water, thus putting Yemeni civilians at risk.
Air strikes carried out by the coalition target Houthi positions, but they have also hit schools, hospitals and, according to United States senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, reserves of drinking water.

"The cholera epidemic is in part due to the bombing of the water supply in Sana’a", he said in late June. The France 24 Observers team spoke with Qasim Ali Al-Shawea, a Yemeni humanitarian worker based Sana’a. He said that close to 300 reservoirs had been destroyed in this way.

Devastated public services

According to the United Nations, the Red Cross and several other humanitarian organisations present on the ground, most government employees-- including 30,000 local health professionals-- haven’t been paid since last summer. This dire situation has led to personnel shortages, which only serves to aggravate the ongoing cholera epidemic. Moreover, municipal workers tasked with collecting garbage are no longer being paid and rubbish has been piling up in city streets. This waste also flows into water sources, polluting it, and thus creating perfect conditions for the spread of cholera.

Amnesty International says that at least 34 coalition airstrikes have violated international humanitarian law and killed at least 494 civilians. The rights group says these deadly air strikes were carried out using American and British equipment. Houthi rebels are also responsible for killing an unknown number of civilians while engaging in indiscriminate artillery, mortar and rocket fire.
By Ahmad Algohby