On April 17, the sewer system in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a stopped working. The country’s brutal civil war had created a fuel shortage, and the generators that kept sewers functioning had run dry.
Just 10 days later, a cholera epidemic gripped the city. Within two months, that epidemic had spread throughout the country. Today, the deadly disease has infected 300,000 people, according to the latest figures from the International Committee for the Red Cross. More than 1,700 have died.
The ICRC says it’s the world’s “single largest humanitarian crisis.” About 7,000 new infections are reported every day.
“The situation is catastrophic,” ICRC spokesperson Soumaya Beltifa said from Sana’a. “There is no hopeful sign that it’s going to slow down, [and] the health system is going to collapse in a matter of months.”
Beltifa says less than half of the healthcare facilities in Yemen — already the Gulf’s poorest country before the war broke out — are functional. About 30,000 local aid workers reportedly haven’t been paid salaries for 10 months.
The overall humanitarian crisis and the epidemic of cholera, a bacterial infection that can cause deadly diarrhea and vomiting, is collateral damage from the country’s two-year-old civil war, in which coalition forces led by neighboring Saudi Arabia and backed by the U.S. have been fighting Houthi rebels since March 2015.
“This deadly cholera outbreak is the direct consequence of two years of heavy conflict,” Unicef and the World Health Organization said in a joint statement in June. “Collapsing health, water, and sanitation systems have cut off 14.5 million people from regular access to clean water and sanitation, increasing the ability of the disease to spread.”
Without treatment, the death rate for cholera victims is 50 percent — but the disease isn’t difficult to treat via rehydration if victims are able to get help. That’s why most industrialized countries haven’t had an outbreak since the 19th century; the U.S. averages six cases of cholera per year. With proper treatment, the mortality rate for cholera victims is just 1 percent.
“Imagine a country that’s gone through a war where most… health centers have been damaged and medical staff haven’t been paid since September last year,” said Helena Valencia, the Yemen head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières, which is operating two health facilities in the country. “And imagine that 2 million people have been forced to leave their homes and are now living in tents without access to clean water or latrines…. That’s the type of dramatic humanitarian crisis we’re seeing in Yemen today because of the conflict.”