UN warns of 'storm' of famine in conflict-hit Yemen

Cairo (AFP) - The United Nations warned Wednesday of a "developing famine" in Yemen, where more than half a million children are severely malnourished, and pressed for access to its war-torn regions.

Impoverished Yemen has been wracked by conflict since March when a Saudi-led Arab coalition launched air strikes against Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels.

The UN's World Food Programme said the conflict has left Yemen on the brink of a famine in the areas of fighting.

"All the signs that will lead us to the qualifiable definition of famine are in fact developing in front of our eyes," WFP executive director Ertharin Cousin told reporters in Cairo following a three-day mission to Yemen.

Cousin called for immediate and regular access for WFP aid workers to areas of conflict.

"If we cannot support the commercial markets by ensuring that the ports are open... If we do not see increased donor supply, we are facing the perfect storm in Yemen," he said.

"The markets do not have the staple food that is necessary to meet the needs of the broader population... The humanitarian community does not have the necessary access or funds."

Already in June, the UN envoy for Yemen, Ould Cheik Ahmed, appealed for a ceasefire and warned: "We are one step away from famine."

WFP said a study it carried out showed food security was at its most precarious for Yemen's 1.3 million internally displaced people.

The agency, in a statement, said it has reached 3.5 million people with food supplies since the conflict erupted, "but fighting makes deliveries difficult and dangerous".

More than 1.2 million children are suffering from moderate to acute malnutrition and over half a million children are severely malnourished, it said.

- Nearly 400 children killed -

Separately, the UN children's fund said Wednesday an average of eight children are being killed or maimed each day in Yemen's conflict and warned of "terrifying consequences" for the country's youth.

Nearly 400 children have been killed and over 600 others injured in the past four months, UNICEF said in a report.

"Disrupted health services, increased levels of child malnutrition, closed schools and higher numbers of children recruited by fighting groups are among the effects of the conflict now ravaging the Arab world’s poorest country," it said.

"Children are being killed by bombs or bullets and those that survive face the growing threat of disease and malnutrition," said the UNICEF representative in Yemen, Julien Harneis.

The agency said: "As devastating as the conflict is for the lives of children right now, it will have terrifying consequences for their future".

Nearly 10 million children -- 80 per cent of Yemen’s under-18 population -- are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, it said.

In its report, WFP estimates the number of food insecure people in Yemen is now almost 13 million, including six million deemed "severely food insecure and in urgent need of external assistance".

The UN food agency made an urgent plea for donations ahead of the start of an emergency food supply operation in Yemen next month expected to cost about $320 million.

"The damage to Yemen's next generation may become irreversible if we don't reach children quickly with the right food at the right time. We must act now before it is too late," Cousin said in the statement.