Yemen: the war of starvation

By Disclose

Weapons sold by France to the Saudi-led coalition offensive against the Houthi rebellion in Yemen are being used to starve millions of the country’s population, a strategy the United Nations has described as a method of warfare that “may constitute a war crime”.

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For the past four years, an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has been carrying out daily bombing missions in Yemen. Using information sourced from the Yemen Data Project (see note at bottom of page), Disclose analysed the details of 19,278 aerial bombing raids recorded between March 26th 2015 and February 28th 2019.

The results: these show that 30% of the bombing raids were against civilian targets. The intent of the coalition was clearly to destroy infrastructures that are essential for the survival of Yemen’s population of 28 million people.

A total of 1,140 bombing missions targeted agricultural production and the country’s food and water supplies, including farms, markets, fishing boats and reservoirs of drinking water. That figure places the food sector as the third most important military objective for the Arab coalition, behind military targets (4,250 raids) and inhabited zones (1,883 raids).

These bombings have greatly contributed to creating in Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis seen anywhere in recent history. According to the United Nations (UN), no less than 80% of the country’s population are in need of urgent food supplies.

Our investigation reveals a deliberate strategy of causing famine in Yemen, a war of starvation led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with planes, guided bombs and navy vessels ‘Made in France’. Since the beginning of the conflict, the coalition has enjoyed with the unwavering diplomatic support of the French government.

  • Farms

The coalition has bombed 659 farms in Yemen since 2015. Most of the targets are situated in the north-west of the country, where the Houthi rebels are based.

Locations of principal farms in western Yemen. © Mediapart

There is no doubt that these sites were deliberately targeted. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), just 3% of land in Yemen is arable, and of that percentage just 1% is farmed on a permanent basis.

Above: the aftermath of an aerial bombing raid on January 3rd 2016 which decimated a dairy herd on a farm in Bajil, in the western Yemeni governorate (province) of Hodeidah. © Mediapart

Most Yemenis live in rural and mountainous areas, and about 70% of the total population depend upon local markets for their daily food requirements.

  • Food markets

The coalition forces have bombed 218 food markets. In remote regions like the north-west governorate of Hajjah, inhabitants depend entirely on these markets for their food supplies. Now they have become highly dangerous sites for thousands of people.

The locations of principal food markets in west Yemen. © Mediapart

On January 6th 2018, a series of air raids devastated a fruit and vegetable market in the north-east governorate of Saada (see video below). No military forces or weapons were located in the market, nor any of the sites nearby.

© AP

  • Food production and stocks

A total of 138 air raids targeted sites involved in the production, storage and transport of foodstuffs, including grain and flour silos, fruit and vegetable stocks, bottling plants and bakeries.

Above: the principal sites of food production plants and storage depots in west Yemen. © Mediapart

On January 6th 2018, a series of air raids devastated a fruit and vegetable market in the north-east governorate of Saada. No military forces or weapons were located in the market, nor any of the sites nearby. 

Above: images posted on Twitter reportedly showing the aftermath of the January 6th 2018 air raids on a fruit and vegetable market in Saada. © Twitter

Damage caused by a coalition air raid on a food processing plant in Dhamar, a governorate under Huthi control.

Above: images posted on Twitter reportedly showing the March 2017 air strike on a food processing plant in Dhamar. © Twitter

Coastal areas have also been the target of repeated coalition bombardments. Fighter jets, together with weapons launched from Saudi and Emirati warships, have attacked villages, ports and fishing boats.

  • Fishing activities

At least 222 boats have been destroyed both at sea and in bombings of ports along Yemen’s Red Sea coastline, while 35 small fishing boats were also destroyed. Fish markets have also been targeted by coalition raids.

Principal fishing ports and inland fish markets in west Yemen. © Mediapart

On February 13th 2019, a small fishing boat close to the Yemeni coast was struck by a missile.

Above: amateur video reportedly showing a small fishing boat and its occupants after an attack in February 2019 by the Saudi-led coalition (warning:these images contain distressing scenes). © Disclose

Out of a total of around 7,000 fishing vessels, 4,586 have halted all activity according to Yemen’s fisheries ministry.

The civil war in Yemen has caused the collapse of the country’s economy. Since the start of the conflict, the average price of food has risen by 150%, while fuel prices have leapt by 200%. This huge rise in costs has had dire consequences for agriculture, transport, electricity and water supplies, and upon people’s health.

  • Water ressources

Coalition air strikes have been launched against 91 sites supplying drinking water, including reservoirs, wells, water pumps, and also irrigation canals and water treatment plants.

Principal water treatment plants and water sources in west Yemen. © Mediapart

A coalition strike on January 8th 2016 targeted a water desalination plant near the south-west port city of Mocha which served the local coastal population.

Images posted on Twitter reportedly showing the aftermath of a January 8th 2016 attack on a water desalination plant near the port city of Mocha. © Twitter

In 2019, the UN estimated that 16 million Yemenis did not have access to drinking water. The crisis has led to a widespread cholera epidemic in the west of the country.

Since October 2016, there have been 2,906 recorded deaths from cholera. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 1.1 million people are infected with the disease.

Above: reported numbers of cholera cases in 2018, by region. © Mediapart

“We are losing the fight against famine,” declared Mark Lowcock, UN Humanitarian Affairs chief and Emergency Relief Coordinator, in September 2018.

Regions affected by food shortages: those in yellow show where provisions are in difficulty, in red those considered to be critical, and in deep red those where the situation is a state of emergency. © Mediapart

In the coming months, 14 million people in Yemen are at risk of becoming trapped in a situation of “pre-famine”. Over the past four years, an estimated 85,000 Yemeni children have died from hunger or illness..

The strategy of starvation is also practiced at sea. Since April 14th 2015, the date when the UN adopted a resolution for an embargo to be placed on weapons supplies to Houthi forces, the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE warships have imposed a maritime blockade in the Red Sea. This does not respect the terms of the UN resolution, because it includes systematic interceptions of cargo shipments heading for Yemen. As a result, there have been significant delays in humanitarian aid supplies reaching the country. Delays have also been caused to shipments of vital commodities reaching the port of Hodeidah, Yemen’s principal maritime hub for imported goods.

A UN Security Council Resolution 2417, adopted on May 24th 2018, stated that “[The UN] Strongly condemns the unlawful denial of humanitarian access and depriving civilians of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supply and access for responses to conflict‑induced food insecurity in situations of armed conflict, which may constitute a violation of international humanitarian law.”

Through its air attacks and maritime blockade, the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition has a heavy responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. But the Houthi forces also have a part of the responsibility. The UN accuses them of hi-jacking food aid destined for the civilian population, and also of targeting food stocks.  

“It is a humanitarian crisis the likes of which have never been seen before,” said French defence minister Florence Parly, speaking about the crisis in Yemen in an interview with French news channel BFM-TV on October 30th 2018. “It is a priority for France that humanitarian aid can get through,” she added, in a stern tone.

But at that very moment, Florence Parly was aware (see main story) of the use of French-made weapons in the Arab coalition’s maritime blockade of Yemen-bound cargo in the Red Sea and which is starving the civilian population.

Contacted by Disclose, the French prime minister's office provided a lengthy reply to the issuess raised in this, and our adjoining reports, published by Mediapart on April 15th. The most relevant statements have been included in the three arcticles, while the full reply, translated from French into English, can be found by clicking on the "More" tab (here, or top of page).


  • The French version of this report can be found here.


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Disclose is a new French entity in online media, established as an NGO dedicated to investigative journalism. It is a not-for-profit project, uniquely financed from voluntary funding. Its investigations are carried out over long-term assignments, before their publication in both French and English on itsfreely accessible site and in conjunction with other media partners.

Mediapart is one of its partners, with the intention of supporting new media projects in investigative journalism, which is why we are relaying here the first major series of reports by Disclose, with the selection of three articles. They provide exclusive and further irrefutable evidence of a scandal which Mediapart has previously reported upon, namely the role played by French-made weapons in the dirty war waged in Yemen by the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition.

The documents revealed by Disclose include those classified in France as official defence secrets. If we detail them here it is because they are of public interest. They demonstrate how the French government has concealed its part of responsibility in a war which, since 2015, has caused the deaths of thousands of civilians.

The publication of these documents represents no danger to French army personnel nor its missions. The subject here is the use of weapons made and sold by France to other countries.

Some of the information contained in these three reports by Disclose is from several entities monitoring the crisis in Yemen.

One is the Yemen Data Project, a not-for-profit initiative set up in 2016 to provide independently researched facts and figures about the unfolding war in Yemen, including unbiased data relating to the coalition’s bombing campaigns. The information it receives is studied and compared against other data collected by the UK-based NGO Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

Other data cited in this investigation comes from publicly accessible information provided by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a body partnered by UN agencies, governments and NGOs to provide analyses of situations of food insecurity and malnutrition.