LONDON Yemen is facing a humanitarian catastrophe as an explosion of violence strains a country that is already one of the poorest in the world, Yemen representative for the U.N. children's agency UNICEF said on Tuesday.
People in the capital Sanaa are very scared and the country is in desperate need of water and fuel, Geert Cappelaere said.
"This country is absolutely in dire need of humanitarian assistance," he said.
"We hope that a solution to the political stalemate will come soon, but even if it comes this is not an end to the problems. We cannot emphasize that enough. Forty percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the repercussions of this are just huge."
Yemen is on the brink of civil war, with street protests demanding its autocratic ruler President Ali Abdullah Saleh go. Saleh, who has ruled for 33 years, was flown to Saudi Arabia at the weekend after being hurt in an attack on his palace.
Analysts say Saleh's absence could help a peaceful transition of power although much could go wrong.
Cappelaere said the insecurity was threatening to exacerbate the malnutrition crisis in Yemen where half of children already have stunted growth -- the highest rate in the world.
"Malnutrition levels are horrendous. Food prices are going up so malnutrition levels that are already high are going up too," he told Reuters by phone from Sanaa.
Schools have also closed so children cannot sit exams, which will jeopardize their future opportunities, he said.
Cappelaere said fuel, which is vital for trucking supplies as well as pumping water, was in such short supply that the United Nations is trying to negotiate with Saudi Arabia to access fuel for humanitarian operations.
The United Nations and humanitarian agencies are also planning to increase a $225 million appeal for Yemen launched at the beginning of the year which is 56-percent funded.
Violence has displaced thousands of people, most recently in the south where al Qaeda forces seized the city of Zinjibar.
U.N. agencies are already helping 15,000 people uprooted by the fighting but fear the numbers could rise to 40,000. Most of the displaced are women and children.
Cappelaere said people in Sanaa have moved out to villages, putting a strain on areas that are already underdeveloped.
"The move to the rural areas is positive for the time-being because people are fleeing violence and insecurity, but it can turn very bad, very quickly because the absorption capacity in rural areas is not going to be unlimited."
He said the chronic fuel crisis across the country was making it hard for aid agencies to continue supporting people.
"For example, we at UNICEF are responsible for trucking water. But you need a lot of fuel to pump the water from the ground and to transport it.
"Yemen has faced a water crisis for 15 to 20 years. People have hardly any access. Sixty percent of Sanaa's population get water from trucks not from the mains."
He said there had already been a cholera outbreak in the south where fighting had forced people to use unsafe water.
Cappelaere, one of very few international aid workers left in Yemen, said his staff were extremely frightened and some had lost loved-ones in the fighting.
"People are very, very distressed and very, very scared. People are comparing the situation with the previous wars in Yemen. They are scared of the violence and the looting."
He said bombing near his home on Friday had forced him to decamp to his office where he was sleeping on a mattress and surviving on bread and cheese spread.
(For more humanitarian news see www.trust.org/alertnet)