Cholera deaths in war-torn Yemen have surged into the hundreds, more than a quarter of Yemenis face famine, and parents are selling girls into marriage to buy food, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
The description of Yemen by the top United Nations aid official, Stephen O’Brien, the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency-relief coordinator, was perhaps his most dire yet in a series of alarming updates on the crisis.
“If there was no conflict in Yemen, there would be no descent into famine, misery, disease and death — a famine would certainly be avoidable and averted,” Mr. O’Brien told the United Nations Security Council.
He depicted the crisis as man-made, implicitly placing part of the blame on the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition that has been bombing Yemen’s Houthi rebels and their allies for over two years.
He also blamed the Houthis.
“The people of Yemen are being subjected to deprivation, disease and death as the world watches,” he said.
Mr. O’Brien also implored the Saudis to avoid an attack on Hodeidah, the only port in Yemen that can still handle shiploads of food and medicine. Virtually all of the basic needs in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, must be imported.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have vowed to crush the Houthis, seeing them as proxies for Iran’s influence in the region. The Saudis have pledged to retake all territory seized by the Houthis, who are from the north of Yemen, and reinstate the Saudi-backed government that was forced to flee the capital, Sana, in 2015.
Although widely criticized for indiscriminate bombings in Yemen, the Saudis have also suggested they are in no rush to end a war that has ravaged their neighbor, leaving roughly 10,000 Yemenis dead and millions destitute and at risk of disease.
Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, said in a televised interview on May 2 that his side could just exhaust the Houthis and starve them of supplies.
Last week, the Saudis received a strong signal of American support when President Trump visited Saudi Arabia and signed a $110 billion weapons deal, including warplanes and armaments that could presumably be deployed in the Yemen conflict.
For Mr. O’Brien and other international aid advocates, the conflict has become the world’s largest food security crisis, which has now been aggravated by a fast-spreading cholera outbreak.
Less than a month ago, the World Health Organization reported nearly 800 cases and at least 34 deaths from cholera, which causes fatal dehydration from water contaminated by feces.
On Tuesday, Mr. O’Brien and other United Nations officials said the cholera death toll now approached 500, with roughly 60,000 cases, and they forecast 150,000 new cases in the next six months.
Mr. O’Brien also told the Security Council that more than 17 million Yemenis were “food insecure” — which means they lack a reliable supply — and 6.8 million were “one step away from famine.” The country’s population is roughly 25 million.
Many simply cannot afford to buy food, Mr. O’Brien said, and more than a million civil servants have not been paid for months, pushing more people toward acute hunger and worse.
“Families are increasingly marrying off their young daughters to have someone else care for them, and often use the dowry to pay for basic necessities,” he said.
The United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who also briefed the council, said he saw no sign the antagonists were willing to compromise. “I will not hide from this council that we are not close to a comprehensive agreement,” he said.
Last week, gunmen in Sana shot at the special envoy’s car shortly after he had arrived in an effort to restart negotiations. The Saudi news media described the attack as a Houthi attempt to assassinate him. Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who was not hurt, told the council the shooting had reinforced his intent to find “a peaceful end to the war.”