Millions more at risk of starvation in Yemen's war, UN warns

The United Nations aid chief urged the Saudi-led military coalition which controls Yemen's ports to expedite imports of vital food and fuel supplies, warning that a further 10 million Yemenis could face starvation by year-end.

Because of inspections, UN says, aid shipments haven't matched levels seen before late 2017 blockade

People queue outside a charity food distribution centre during the holy month of Ramadan in Sanaa on May 20. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

The United Nations aid chief urged the Saudi-led military coalition that controls Yemen's ports to expedite imports of vital food and fuel supplies, warning that a further 10 million Yemenis could face starvation by year-end.

After three years of conflict in which the Yemeni government, backed by Riyadh's coalition, has fought against Iran-aligned Houthi fighters, Yemen is the world's worst humanitarian crisis with some 8.4 million people severely short of food and at risk of starvation.

"I am particularly concerned about the recent decline of commercial food imports through the Red Sea ports," Mark Lowcock, UN emergency relief co-ordinator, said in a statement read out to a Geneva briefing on Friday.

For several weeks at the end of last year, the Saudi coalition imposed a blockade on Yemeni ports which it said was to prevent Houthis from importing weapons. This had a severe impact on Yemen, which traditionally imports 90 per cent of its food.

Under international pressure the coalition lifted the blockade, but tightened ship inspections. Lowcock said commercial food and fuel imports remained "well short of pre-blockade averages."

"If conditions do not improve, a further 10 million people will fall into this category by the end of the year," he said. Confidence among commercial shippers has eroded due to delays, "including as a result of inspections undertaken by the Saudi-led coalition after these vessels have been cleared by UNVIM," Lowcock said, referring to a UN verification system.

A guard stands on the wreckage of a petrol station hit by airstrikes at an area in the outskirts of Sanaa on May 21. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

In a bid to speed up the delivery of aid to Yemen, the United Nations said last month it was beefing up its own inspections of ships.

"I call on the Government of Yemen, with the support of the coalition, to take active steps to boost commercial imports of food, fuel and humanitarian supplies through all Yemen's ports," Lowcock said.

Houthi forces have also increased restrictions on the work of aid agencies in the northern areas they control, and it has become more difficult to work along the western coast and in the city of Taiz, he said.

The Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Muslim states continues to carry out airstrikes in Yemen in support of restoring the internationally-recognized government. Houthi forces have launched missiles into Saudi Arabia.

Some 10,000 have been killed in the war, which has displaced three million internally and triggered a major cholera outbreak that threatens to re-emerge with the ongoing rainy season.

Key supplies including some needed to combat the deadly water-borne disease, remain on the prohibited list of imports, Lowcock said.