Yemen: all we can do is help people survive

Oxfam Conflict, Emergencies, Humanitarian


The conflict which escalated one year ago in Yemen has created one of the world’s biggest humanitarian emergencies and risks pushing millions into famine. Simone Carter, Oxfam emergency responder in Yemen, describes the daily reality of civilian suffering and the challenges of delivering a programme in a conflict zone. 

As much as I may not like waking in the middle of the night to the sound of bombing, the house and windows shaking, it’s nothing compared to what people are facing in their own homes. As fighting in Yemen intensifies, spending the early hours of the day in a safe room gives us all plenty of time to think about the challenges of the day.

In just 12 months we have reached a point where all we can really do is help people survive the war. Last month I visited an 11 tonne water tank that Oxfam had installed. It hasn’t worked since October when fighting left six bullet holes in it, rendering it useless for the task of providing water to the 250 families living in the camp around it.

I work as a public health and community mobilisation coordinator. My job is to support our teams to work with communities to understand their needs and how Oxfam can help them.

Now, almost a year since the conflict started, we work with communities to help them ensure they have water. We also help to improve sanitation in the towns, villages and camps that we work in. Sometimes it feels insurmountable, but we help communities deal with it in the best way that they can.

Water and food needs were huge before the war escalated. Now the damage caused by all sides in the conflict has set us back years, or even decades (see Oxfam’s new briefing on Yemen’s Invisible Food Crisis). In just 12 months we have reached a point where all we can really do is help people survive the war. Nothing more, just survive it.

Those who were a little better off and have been helping their friends and family, hosting them in their homes, are starting to lose their ability to cope. In some areas we find people who can barely feed their own family, let alone support others.

The shortage of fuel in Yemen means the cost of providing lifesaving drinking water has shot up to unsustainable levels; it now costs 175,000 US dollars a month to deliver water to 15,000 homes in the province of Amran alone. For aid agencies it’s becoming unaffordable to maintain this help.

In communities without water networks, bringing water by truck was commonplace before the conflict, but the cost of even a jerry can has now tripled. The lack of power means that the water systems in cities have ground to a halt, generators used to pump the water from boreholes but now the fuel is too expensive. 

Waste management used to be run by the cities’ Cleaning Fund, often supported by large local factories. In the city of Amran the cement factory that used to provide incentives for the waste collection was bombed and closed down. Fuel is also needed to operate the trucks that pick up the rubbish.

The cost of fuel means that even food cannot be delivered, and people can hardly eat even with food vouchers that Oxfam provides. Families are left burning plastic bottles and rags in order to cook what little food they have.

Families are left burning plastic bottles and rags in order to cook what little food they have. Getting the right materials and moving supplies to the most devastated areas are ‘normal’ challenges in a humanitarian context. Whether it is conflict, droughts or earthquakes, we’re used to being blocked, but I’ve never faced challenges like this.

Oxfam managers spend most of their days negotiating. We negotiate to reach people displaced by fighting; we try to persuade officials to release relief supplies stuck in Hodeida port for months; we have to negotiate with landowners to build latrines on their land where people live in ramshackle shelters. 

Access to people in the city of Taiz is only possible through our partner organisations living within the besieged city. But these partners are also trapped, unable to move in and out of the city freely. International donors require that we have original contracts and signed documents to implement projects, but this is simply not feasible. We’ve negotiated the terms so we can send photocopies and scans instead.

Leaving the capital recently, I left bright and early, feeling rested after a night without interruptions. We got to the outskirts of the city and then I saw the destruction. “There,” a man pointed, “that was my neighbour, the airstrike hit last night and killed seven people. My neighbour and his wife are dead and their children in hospital. I spent the night holding my children and praying for safety.”

This is daily life for those living in many areas of the country. It’s tough work but we have to keep negotiating for a better kind of survival.

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Faedah Saeed, 35, fled with her four children from Taiz city to Al-Mendhara Village a year ago due to the conflict. Despite poor health, Faedah walks for 90 minutes three times a day to collect water for the family from a remote well. Credit: Moayed Al-Shaybani/Oxfam.

Author: Simone Carter
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.