AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Warring sides in Yemen's civil war promised visiting U.N. agency chiefs to clear obstacles to aid delivery in a nation where cholera is spreading rapidly and hundreds of thousands of children are severely malnourished, the head of the U.N. child welfare agency said Thursday.
The growing suffering of Yemen's civilians, including millions of children, is the result of fighting that erupted in September 2014 and is driven by regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. The U.S. has backed a Saudi-led coalition with intelligence, satellite imagery and billions of dollars in weapons sales.
The way to end to end the entirely man-made disaster is clear, said Anthony Lake, the executive director of UNICEF. "Stop the war," he said, addressing those involved in the civil war, both inside and outside Yemen.
Lake said ordinary people around the world should feel "immense pity, even agony, for all of these children and others who are suffering, and they should feel anger, anger that this, our generation, is scarred by the irresponsibility of governments and others to allow these things to be happening."
In Yemen, he stood by the bedside of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, accompanied by mothers who had struggled to get them to the hospital.
"What stays with you is their eyes," he said of the children. "Their eyes are looking up at their mothers with this look of trust, and we won't know for how many that trust will be fulfilled and they live, and (how many) others will die."
The suffering among Yemen's 27 million people, reflected in statistics, is staggering.
— Nearly 2 million children are acutely malnourished, which makes them more susceptible to cholera.
—More than 60 percent of the population don't know where their next meal will come from, pushing the country to the brink of famine.
— Four out of five children need humanitarian aid.
—Half the population lacks adequate health care.
— About 400,000 cases of suspected cholera and close to 1,900 deaths linked to the disease have been recorded since April, with the number expected to rise during the current rainy seasons.
More than 600 rehydration centers treating acute watery diarrhea and suspected cholera have been set up, with plans to increase the number of centers to more than 1,000, Lake said.
The main obstacle to ramping up the fight against cholera is lack of resources, he said.
"In the areas where we are working effectively, both the number of cases and the fatality rate are going down," Lake told The Associated Press in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
"So it's a race between us and the rains and the continuing destruction and the fighting — and of course, you always hope you will win," he said.
Lake was joined by the heads of the World Food Program and the World Health Organization during the Yemen tour. The trio met with officials from the rival governments to win assurances that obstacles to aid delivery would be removed.
Their demands included getting access to hard-to-reach areas, being able to bring in more supplies, including medical aid, and reducing delays.
"They said, yes, they would try to speed things up," Lake said of the rival sides. "They made a commitment and we will now hope that it is met."
He said the U.N. agency chiefs failed to win assurances though on a key demand — that the governments pay health workers and teachers who haven't received their salaries for months.
Lake said aid agencies have been paying per diems to health workers, as part of efforts to restore minimal care, but that this is not a solution.
He said he tried to appeal to the self-interest of the political rivals.
Whoever emerges victorious will "inherit a disaster, a catastrophe that is constantly getting worse," he said. "They need to think about what kind of Yemen it is that they will someday need to rule."
The conflict began after Shiite Houthi rebels swept into the capital of Sanaa in 2014 and overthrew President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi's internationally recognized government. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition began a campaign in support of Hadi's govern and against the Houthis, allied with ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Since then, the Iranian-backed Houthis have been dislodged from most of the south, but remain in control of Sanaa and much of the north.
In the southern part of the country, the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition, has set up its own security forces, running virtually a state-within-a-state and fueling the south's independence movement.
Lake said it is "strategically incredibly stupid" for the leaders on both sides and regional actors to keep the fighting going. The conflict today is going to be perpetuated in the next generation, as children grow up with hate and deprivation.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, urged the international community to step up political pressure to end the fighting.
The world must "wield influence over the behavior of warring parties as a matter of urgency," said ICRC president Peter Maurer in a statement.