Wednesday,20 September, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Wednesday,20 September, 2017
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The human costs of civil war

Syria, Yemen, Libya and South Sudan are all witness to humanitarian catastrophes of enormous scale, borne of political conflicts that could take years to surpass, writes Haitham Nouri

The human costs of civil war
The human costs of civil war

اقرأ باللغة العربية


Between the onset of war, declared by some party, and the end of war, which often occurs despite that party, the humanitarian tragedy reaps its toll: the dead and wounded from combat, the spread of poverty and disease, the collapse of essential infrastructure, the loss of an entire generation, along with drought and starvation. Such are the costs of war.

In the wars that we see today in the Middle East and Africa, costs have exceeded all expectations. In Syria, Yemen, Libya and South Sudan, the first sparks were emitted during the popular uprisings for democracy, plurality, participation and civic freedoms. In all these cases, these movements precipitated tensions and clashes between different components of society competing for control and power, and this deteriorated into civil war.

The costs of civil war are very high, probably much higher than international conflicts in some cases. Among the first costs is the difficulty of restoring social concord which, naturally, leaves current and future generations with the uncertainties of a crisis of confidence between the various components of the nation. The mutual lack of trust, in turn, is fed by the feelings of injustice that rankle within all parties. There are constant demands for revenge and redress from tribes, sects, ethnic groups or other such communities for the numbers of their own killed, displaced or left without the resources of survival. Such conditions hamper the revival of production and development due to the difficulty of rallying the various sectors of the people behind development and reconstruction plans.

During wartime, the problems accumulate for defenceless civilians, as has been made apparent in Yemen, Syria, northeast Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia.

In Yemen, gripped by civil war for years, conditions were aggravated by the bombardment by the Saudi-led Arab coalition that launched its campaign in March 2015, leaving hundreds of dead, thousands of wounded and more than a million displaced, as well as untold numbers who lost their sources of income.

More disastrous yet were the threats of widespread cholera and starvation. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that millions of Yemenis require urgent humanitarian assistance. The World Health Organisation announced that it anticipates the numbers of those afflicted by cholera to reach half a million by the end of this year if the epidemic continues to spread at the rate recorded in July. In July, in its fourth report on Yemen, WHO stated that more than 362,000 people had been afflicted by cholera and that 1,817 people had died of this disease. According to UNICEF estimates, 41 per cent of the victims are children under 15.

Yemen needs $65 million to fight the epidemic. So far, the international community has only collected $10.5 billion. Still, dozens of development and relief organisations have mobilised to confront the crisis, exacerbated due to the severe deterioration of standards of living that affected 21 out of Yemen’s 23 governorates. It appears that the spread of the epidemic has begun to decline, with the rate of anticipated deaths due to cholera dropping to 0.5 per cent. If the numbers of dead do not increase during the rainy season in August and September, there may be good news as far as the fight against cholera in Yemen is concerned.

It also appears that the spectre of famine is on the decline in Yemen. Nevertheless, malnourishment remains rampant and two-thirds of the country’s population of 24 million require urgent humanitarian relief.

In South Sudan, the situation appears to be improving slightly as well. In spring, the country stood on the brink of famine. At the beginning of August, the UN announced that it had moved away from that brink. However, the international organisation warned of an increasing number of people vulnerable to severe food supply shortages in the world’s youngest independent nation (9 July 2011) which has been mired in turmoil since the split between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his Vice President Riek Machar in 2014.

Tens of thousands have been killed in the combat between the official army and the forces supporting Machar. Millions have been forced to leave their homes and villages due to the fierce warfare between the Dinka ethnic group (to which Kiir belongs) and the opposing Nuer ethnic group (to which Machar belongs). According to a report released by the IPC Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, 1.8 million of South Sudan’s population of 14 million was at risk of famine, one degree less than famine, according to the organisation’s classification system. It added that the number of people estimated to be severely food insecure reached six million.

In July, in his briefing to the UN Security Council, UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination Stephen O’Brian warned that the peril of famine was not over and that in South Sudan more people were at risk of famine than in February.

In Syria, the civilian population faces similar hardships. The number of killed due to the warfare in the country has surpassed 250,000, according to UN estimates. The Syrian Centre for Political Research, which is close to opposition circles, puts the number at 480,000. Estimates also vary with regard to the number of wounded, with the UN citing a million and the centre 1.9 million.

Life expectancy rates have plunged from 70.5 years in 2010 to 55.4 years in 2015.

Ten million people have been forced to leave their homes. Six million are displaced within Syria and the rest are refugees abroad, with 2.7 million in Turkey, more than a million in Lebanon, 637,000 in Jordan, 245,000 in Iraq and 118,000 in Egypt. Syria has lost 20 per cent of its population.

Basic infrastructure has suffered massive destruction. About half of the country’s hospitals have been partially or totally destroyed. Also, 45 per cent of the children are deprived of school, meaning an entire generation will be negatively impacted.

Infrastructural losses in the educational sector come to more than $120 million. The losses of the energy sector stand at around $500 million due to the damage to oil and gas facilities and electricity generation stations.

In Nigeria, the northeast is also in the midst of a humanitarian disaster due to the confrontations between the army and the Boko Haram terrorist group. According to UNICEF, half a million children are at risk of starvation among the 14 million people who require urgent humanitarian relief. This disaster is unfolding in Africa’s largest petroleum exporting nation, which is simultaneously plagued by nightmarish levels of corruption.

The confrontations against the Boko Haram terrorist group has caused 1.8 million to flee their homes in the northeast province during the past four years since terrorism reared its head there.

As is the case with most humanitarian disasters around the world, humanitarian aid and relief organisations in Nigeria are underfunded. They have only received 41 per cent of their total fundraising target of $115 million to fight the deterioration in the northeast.

Boko Haram’s impact is not limited to Nigeria. Chad, Cameroon and Niger have also been struck by this blight, causing increasing numbers of dead and higher numbers of displaced persons and refugees.

With more than 20 million people at risk of famine in South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia, the world is looking at the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of World War II. However quickly peace is restored to these countries, this will not solve the problem automatically. Rebuilding trust takes years. Overcoming the ravages of famine, displacement and infrastructural damage takes more years. Moreover, in the course of those years, the delicate socio-political situations in those countries are constantly at risk of backsliding, plunging them once again into the vicious cycle of perpetual conflict.

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