With forces aligned to President Hadi and his coalition backers nearly in control of Yemen’s port town of Mocha, the governorate of Hodeidah, just 40 km to the north, is now within their reach. A major offensive has been underway up Yemen’s west coast since Hadi relocated troops and heavy weapons there at the beginning of December. The coastal district of Dhubab in Taiz was retaken by mid-January, and his forces announced their control of Mocha Port on January 23, albeit prematurely as Houthi/Saleh forces continued putting up fierce resistance there for the remainder of the month. Foreign diplomats and international humanitarian NGOs are increasingly worried an attack is now imminent on Hodeidah. Such an operation has been in the works for some time, but was delayed due to concerns from the Obama administration – pressure that has since turned to silence following the changeup in Washington.
An assault on Hodeidah would involve a continued push up the coast by ground troops, airstrikes by coalition jets on targets throughout the governorate, and attacks from helicopters and warships off the coast, facilitated by the military base in nearby Eritrea which the UAE has been building up over the past year. This will likely cause the closure of the country’s most vital port, the Hodeidah Port, and as a result Yemen will experience a drastic reduction in national imports, most importantly in essential foodstuff. Based on trade statistics and current rates of malnutrition, the probability of famine occurring in Hodeidah and much of Yemen’s northwest would greatly increase.
The term “famine” is already being used colloquially to describe areas in Yemen where high death tolls linked to food shortages have been occurring, many of which are in Hodeidah. More formally, the operational definition used by international monitoring groups is based on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale. Passing the threshold for IPC phase 5, famine, requires that at least 20 percent of households have a complete lack of food and starvation is evident; acute malnutrition prevalence exceeds 30 percent; and the daily mortality rate exceeds two per every 10,000 people. A January report by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) warns that famine in Yemen is possible “in a worst-case scenario, where food imports drop substantially for a sustained period of time or where conflict persistently prevents the flow of food to local markets.”
Hodeidah has partially crossed the famine threshold before. A joint UNICEF-Ministry of Health report in August 2015 found a global acute malnutrition (GAM) rate of 31.0 percent, surveying an area representative of 95 percent of the governorate’s population. “This level is classified as catastrophe by IPC since GAM>30,” the report said. The rate had reportedly gone down by March 2016, to 21.7 percent, but the report by FEWS NET says the number of children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM) admitted to treatment programs in Hodeidah has grown by around 40 percent compared to 2014 and 2015 levels, and both acute malnutrition and excess mortality are expected to increase. In his statement to the UN Security Council on January 26, 2017, the head of UN OCHA, Stephen O’Brien, said there has been a 63 percent increase in acute malnourishment among children since late 2015, amounting to 2.2 million.
The humanitarian fallout from the closure of Hodeidah Port would be catastrophic. Data on the percentage of goods imported at the port varies, but it is undoubtedly the country’s most vital. In the same Security Council briefing, O’Brien said an astounding 80 percent of imports to Yemen arrive through Hodeidah port. The UK’s former Secretary of State for Development, Andrew Mitchell, reported the same 80 percent figure in January following his trip to Yemen. Port officials themselves said Hodeidah accounted for 70 percent of imports, both commercial and humanitarian, before the war. While aid agencies could offset some of the fallout by re-routing humanitarian aid through different ports, in reality humanitarian aid comprises a small fraction of overall imports. According to the WFP’s Logistics Cluster, between June and November 2016 only about 8.2 percent of food imports were humanitarian, and 100 percent of fuel imports were commercial. There are currently no viable alternative ports for large quantities of commercial goods to reach Yemen’s northwest due to closed ports on the Saudi border, ongoing clashes, destroyed bridges and roads, and heavy restrictions placed by the coalition, among other obstacles.
While the UN Special Envoy is attempting to renew negotiations that would require Houthi/Saleh forces to withdraw from Hodeidah, both sides appear to be preparing for further escalation. On January 25, for example, Brigadier General Abdo Abdullah Majili, who serves as a spokesman for Hadi’s national army, said “the coalition’s fighter jets launched massive airstrikes on Hodeidah, Al-Khawkhah and other regions to clear the way for advancing forces to make headway.” Likewise, the Houthis reportedly laid mines in mid-January along the main road north of Mocha linking Taiz and Hodeidah, and Supreme Political Council President Saleh Al-Sammad visited the navy and coast guard in Hodeidah early in the month. Based on recent battles, a military incursion into Hodeidah would almost certainly halt imports for several months, and that’s a best-case scenario given Hodeidah has been under Houthi control for over two years and the group has not faced anywhere near the level of local opposition it has in southern governorates.
If a full scale operation to retake the port does not occur, the mere threat of one – which could be a tactic in negotiations – could still cause major ripples. Due to risks posed by piracy, missiles from the coast and coalition jets, as well as Houthi/Saleh authorities at the port, shipping companies are already hesitant to do business with Yemen. On top of this, all commercial shipments have to undergo screening under the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism and anchorage delays were recently taking an average of three weeks for the port of Hodeidah and seven weeks for Al-Saleef, another important port in Hodeidah. This means if shipments stop there would be a long gap before goods begin being offloaded again.
Lastly, if the warring parties do manage to avoid confrontation in Hodeidah, famine nevertheless remains a possibility. Humanitarian Coordinator McGoldrick said at the end of January that wheat stocks will only last three more months and “there is a possibility there will be a gap for a period of time.” His colleague, O’Brien, told the Security Council “if there is no immediate action, famine is now a possible scenario for 2017.” Part of the problem is due to the coalition intentionally preventing Hodeidah Port from operating at normal capacity. After the massive cranes at the port were bombed by coalition jets in 2015, the WFP sent new cranes in order to allow cargo to be offloaded faster, something that is desperately needed because it prolongs the time ships are required to remain at the port and food has spoiled in the past due to delays. In his statement to the Council, O’Brien said Saudi authorities were continuing to prevent the WFP from delivering the new cranes, which remain anchored 24 km away from the port.
The warring parties must take all reasonable precautions to avoid human suffering, and if an attack on Hodeidah is going to occur, alternative arrangements for essential imports and their distribution must be taken. For President Hadi’s administration and the coalition, this means ensuring Aden Port is equipped to take on a manifold increase in imports, and that agreements are made with local authorities for goods to be transferred to the northwest. This also means removing restrictions on Sana’a airport and taking all precautions to avoid targeting farms, factories, food trucks, and other civilian targets. For Houthi/Saleh officials, this means ensuring supplies are not blocked from reaching populations in need and that humanitarian organizations and private businesses are allowed to operate without restrictions. There is no indication any plans have been put in place. For months humanitarian organizations have been warning Yemen is one step away from famine. Unless all necessary precautions are taken, an assault on Hodeidah will mark a giant leap in that direction.