Pro-government forces firing a heavy machine gun at the south of Hodeida airport in Yemen's key aid hub of Hodeida province on June 15, 2018. Photo: AFP/AFPTV

With fighting continuing in and around the key port city of Hodeidah, aid agencies warned this week that disruption caused by the battle could trigger another cholera epidemic in Yemen – and spell disaster for the millions in the country now dependent on imported aid.

“If the harbour is closed, it will be devastating,” CARE International Country Director for Yemen Johan Mooij told Asia Times from Aden. “We have eight to 10 million people in the country relying on imported food aid, and the country’s other harbors could never compensate for the loss of Hodeidah. It’s hard to imagine what would happen.”

Forces loyal to ousted President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, supported by troops from the Saudi-Emirati Coalition, launched an offensive to take the city two weeks ago.

They have been battling forces loyal to the Houthi movement, led by Abdul Malik Al Houthi, which is also supported by Iran.

Reports from the city on Tuesday indicated that the Houthis were reinforcing their defenses, digging trenches and posting snipers on roof tops, in preparation for a further coalition attack. Coalition troops reportedly seized the airport some days ago.

Meanwhile, some 600,000 civilians remain in Hodeidah, with no apparent plan for their evacuation.

Vital link

Their city is by far Yemen’s largest port, supplying 70-80% of all the food and fuel brought into the country. It also has Yemen’s only milling facilities for vital imported grains.

At the same time, imports of fuel oil through Hodeidah and neighboring Saleef – also controlled by the Houthis – are vital for electricity generation.

“Hospitals are reliant on fuel brought in through these ports to power their generators,” said Kristine Beckerle, Yemen and UAE researcher for Human Rights Watch. “No fuel means no incubators, no life support systems, no power for anything. Half the country’s health care facilities are already non-functional.”

In addition, without fuel, water pumps also grind to a halt, with many Yemenis reliant on deep wells for their supplies, now that warfare has destroyed much of the mains system.

“Cholera is a very simple disease,” added Mooij. “To combat it, you just need clean water and basic hygiene. If there’s no access to clean drinking water, though, then we will have another cholera epidemic – it’s that straightforward.”

Yemen suffered what aid agency Oxfam described as the worst cholera epidemic since records began, back in 2016-2017.

More than one million cases were reported, along with over 2,000 fatalities. A major aid campaign halted the spread, but now, that work stands to be rapidly undone.

In Hodeidah, meanwhile, Houthi trench digging has also reportedly cut water pipes, adding to the immediate danger.

Diplomatic efforts

Warnings of a new epidemic – and a further humanitarian catastrophe – also came as the UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, flew back to Aden on Wednesday for a renewed effort to get a ceasefire.

Griffiths has been trying to hammer out an agreement between coalition and Houthi leaders, possibly placing the port under UN control.

Coalition leaders, meanwhile, have dismissed fears that their offensive could cause a humanitarian catastrophe, while accusing the Houthis of manufacturing a crisis in the city by deliberately destroying water and sewerage facilities.

“The coalition is acting responsibly and rationally in trying to secure Hodeidah peacefully and by avoiding a confrontation,” Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted on Tuesday. “Yet, achieving our objectives is essential to ending the war in Yemen.”

While the coalition and the Houthis have both declared support for Griffiths’ mission, the battle may well be too important for either side to withdraw.

“The Houthis maintaining control of any port in Yemen is unacceptable to the coalition,” said Adam Baron, Visiting Fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Middle East and North Africa Program. “I think they feel that taking Hodeidah is a way to get the Houthis to negotiate, too.”

At the same time, control of Hodeidah gives the Houthis considerable power in the rest of the country, as well as in areas directly under their control. Food and fuel coming through the port goes to other parts of Yemen as well, while also providing important revenue for the Houthi authorities.

International pressure

Aid groups are now calling for international players to exert whatever influence they have to bring about a ceasefire, as a basis for peace negotiations to begin.

On the coalition side, three countries hold some leverage over the Saudi and Emirati governments – the US, UK and France.

These have all called on the sides to support the UN peace effort, yet in some instances, are also supporting the coalition.

Saudi warplanes are refueled by US air tankers, while all three supply weapons and military training to the Saudi and Emirati forces.

“There have been a lot of rote recitations of concern,” says Beckerle, “but there hasn’t been sufficient capitalization of the leverage the US, UK and France have. The US in particular has very, very clear leverage over what happens.”

On the Houthi side, “there are very few countries that have influence,” said Mooij. “But there are some.”

Meanwhile, Griffiths was to face a difficult task in Aden on Wednesday when he meets Hadi, with the fragile lifeline on which millions now depend clearly in the balance.

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