Cholera in Yemen: The Preventable Epidemic
Yusra awakes. The constant bombings roaring down from the sky and exploding in the not-so-distance did not wake her. No, she now equates such constant explosions to white noise. Rather, another spasm of intense leg cramps and the urge, no, not urge (that would imply a choice), a compulsion to use the bathroom that cannot be quelled. Cholera plagues her. Although she drinks water in hopes of easing the pain, it only makes things worse . The child contracted cholera due to the constant bombardment of Yemeni infrastructure and, if not treated soon, she could die within hours. Many Yemenis face this reality daily..
The World Health Organization-Yemen reported, as of August 12 of this year, over 494,000 cases of cholera in Yemen, and the outbreak resulted in over 1,966 deaths—nearly a quarter of which include children. Thankfully, the international community is providing much-needed aid as the WHO and UNICEF shipped over 400 tons of medical supplies into the country in July, along with ambulances to transport patients to hospitals. However, Yemen’s violence worsens as the civil war that has raged since 2014 continues. To make matters worse, other Middle Eastern and Western countries intervened, intensifying the conflict. While one cannot directly blame the U.S. for the airstrikes in Yemen that devastated water and sanitation systems, the U.S. continues to back the Saudi-led coalition in their bombings by selling them arms. The continued support of Saudi Arabia, even as they commit war crimes in Yemen, makes the U.S. partially responsible for, or at the very least complicit in, the massive, war-caused cholera epidemic.
In 2011, Sunni rebels overthrew President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Afterwards, divisive political unrest grew under the new administration. Yemen’s civil war began in 2014 when Houthi rebels, a subsection of the minority Shia Muslim population called Zaidis, captured the country’s capital, Sanaa, and much of its surrounding land. The rebellion forced out President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the majority Sunni Muslim government. The Houthis gained control of about half of Yemen’s habitable land, and the conflict did not stop there. Though the Houthis controlled the capital and drove out the previous administration, the international community still recognizes Hadi’s government as Yemen’s legitimate ruling authority. Both sides of the war garnered international support as well. Saudi Arabia, a majority Sunni Muslim nation, supports the ousted Hadi government and remaining loyalists, while Iran, a majority Shia Muslim nation, supports the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia fears that Iran plans to take advantage of the conflict to expand their control in Yemen. Already fearing Iran’s growing influence in other Middle Eastern nations, Saudi Arabia finds Yemen’s location vital because of its long, shared border with Saudi Arabia. The long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran transformed this conflict into a proxy war. Yemen represents a playground for these two countries as they battle through others, and at the expense of others, while civilians are caught in the crossfire.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of Arab nations to defeat the Houthi rebels and sent in ground troops in addition to utilizing airstrikes. The Saudi-led coalition blockaded Yemeni air and sea ports while targeting essential infrastructure such as roads, water and sewage channels, and even hospitals. This destruction primed Yemen for cholera.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines cholera as “an acute, diarrheal illness caused by infection of the intestine with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae” which one contracts after consuming water contaminated by excrement or other forms of waste. Although cholera does not spread interpersonally, because of the dismal state of Yemeni water and sanitation infrastructure, cholera outbreaks become inevitable Officials from the U.N. agree. U.N. humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien, described the cholera outbreak as “[a] man-made catastrophe,” blaming the ongoing civil war for producing the conditions in the country which led to the disease’s outbreak and rapid spreading. O’Brien stated, “Be that the parties on the ground or their proxies, they all have to recognize that there is a shared responsibility for causing a man-made humanitarian catastrophe, which is where we are in Yemen at the moment.”
One can argue that the Saudi-led coalition engaged in biological warfare. The intentional targeting of key infrastructure in the air campaign, and denial of food and water through the blockade led to the disease’s inception in Yemen. The continued military action during the early months of cholera’s presence only served to exacerbate conditions. These inexcusable actions that affect innocent civilians, as opposed to the Houthi military forces, should be admonished by the entire international community. Yet, instead cutting ties with Saudi Arabia, the U.S.strengthens them. The U.S. contributes to the Saudi-led coalition’s destruction of Yemen as it provides the country with military support. The U.S. Senate just approved another $500 million-dollar sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. This comes amid claims by human rights groups that the Saudi bombing of civilians in Yemen may constitute war crimes. In his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump praised the war in Yemen. If Saudi Arabia’s intervention, which some estimate killed nearly 10,000 civilians, constitutes a war crime, then the U.S. bears some responsibility for those deaths. Now, the resulting cholera outbreak threatens the collapse of Yemen. All parties involved, including the U.S., should be held accountable for the lives that the disease took and will take.