Under Siege By Saudi Arabia, Yemen Is Suffering A 19th-Century Plague

Cholera brings to mind 19th-century tenements, sewer-ridden cobblestone streets, and soot-strewn cities without modern healthcare. In the 21st century, it’s largely confined to countries without modern sewage systems.

But in Yemen, it’s because the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is halting aid shipments that could stop it. Nearly 276,000 people have cholera in Yemen, according to the World Health Organization, and it’s largely preventable.

“This is because of conflict, it’s man-made, it’s very severe, the numbers are absolutely staggering, it’s getting worse,” said Stephen O’Brien, the head of the UN’s humanitarian efforts, in an interview with Vice News.

Much of the outbreak is localized in Sana’a, the capital city, which is under control by the Houthis, a rebel force that Saudi Arabia believes are aligned with Iran. Under constant bombardment by Saudi-led forces, the city’s sewer system, power plants, and hospitals have been under strain to keep pace with both casualties and the outbreak.

The UN has called it the world’s worst outbreak of cholera, according to the BBC.

Overlooked by the more geopolitically fraught contest in Syria, Yemen is yet another Arab state that collapsed after the 2011 Arab Spring. Yemen’s long-time president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, endured over a year of protests from 2011 to 2012 when he resigned under Saudi pressure. That left a political vacuum in a country with fraught state management. Yemen was only united into a single country in 1990, when its Marxist, Soviet-aligned South Yemen united with its more conservative brethren in North Yemen. Even today, southerners agitate for secession.

Cholera outbreak in the capital of Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country
Sana'a, the capital city, is suffering the ravages of plague, water shortages, and war. [Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images]

When Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi won the presidency unopposed in 2012, the northern Houthi movement, a mix of anti-southern tribes and Zaiydi Muslims, were left out of power. Hunkered down in the mountains along the northern border with Saudi Arabia, the Houthis had fought running battles with the Saudi army for years and skirmished with the forces of Ali Abdullah Saleh as well. But Saleh’s sudden ousting, and the world’s focus on Syria, created an opportunity for Houthi forces to try to grab a bigger piece of the Yemeni pie. Saleh and forces loyal to him joined forces with the Houthis as they took the country’s capital.

In 2014 and 2015, the Houthis seized control of the country and forced Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom gathered a coalition from its Gulf Arab allies and launched an invasion of Yemen later that year with some 150,000 troops. But while the invasion succeeded in ousting the Houthis from Aden, the country’s main port, and pushed them out of the southern reaches of Yemen, the coalition foundered on its offensives towards Sana’a. Two years have passed and the coalition is nowhere closer to taking the capital city.


Instead, Saudi Arabia has gambled on choking the Houthis into submission. They’ve constricted food and medical supplies into Houthi territory, using their command of Yemen’s ports to interdict essential goods. Meanwhile, using their modern, U.S.-built air force, they have bombed Houthi-controlled infrastructure in hopes of forcing a peace deal more favorable to Saudi Arabia’s ally, President Hadi.

Crown Prince Salman second in line to the throne of Saudi Arabia and chief leader of the war in Yemen
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely reputed to be the chief architect of the war in Yemen. [Photo by Jonathan Ernst - Pool/Getty Images]

Already the Arab world’s poorest country, Sana’a was scheduled to run out of water sometime this year, according to The Guardian. Compounding the poverty and water scarcity are the relentless coalition bombing runs, knocking out vital infrastructure like the sewage system. At least 10,000 Yemeni have been killed thus far, according to Al Jazeera.

[Featured Image by Hani Mohammed/AP Images]