An attack on Yemen's Hodeidah port would push the country closer to famine as humanitarian agencies have no other way to deliver all the food and aid that is needed, a U.N. official said on Thursday.
A Saudi-led military coalition has been preparing an assault on the key Red Sea port, which is the point of entry for nearly 80 percent of Yemen's food imports.
Earlier this month, a coalition source said the alliance was preparing facilities in Aden and Mukalla in south Yemen as alternative entry routes for urgent aid in the event that Hodeidah port was affected by military operations.
But U.N. World Food Programme director of emergencies Denise Brown said the agency had found no alternative route to cover all the country's aid needs.
"Let me be clear, there is no viable option to the port of Hodeidah," she told a press conference in Rome, adding that 75 percent of WFP food assistance goes through the city.
Brown said other ports, like Aden, were not fit for purpose - they could not receive and offload more large ships, nor store and transport all the food.
Deliveries by plane were "cost prohibitive" at up to ten times the price of delivery by sea, she said.
Millions Cut Off
The port's closure could affect access to food for more than five million people, according to the WFP.
Many of them could find themselves cut off entirely, with nothing to eat, said Brown, adding: "Without our assistance those people are going to slide faster towards famine."
Already one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, Yemen was engulfed in 2015 by civil war pitting the armed Houthi group against the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by a Saudi-led Arab alliance.
The coalition has accused the Houthis of using Hodeidah to smuggle weapons and has tried to block ships from entering.
An attack on the port would displace more than 400,000 people, according to the U.N. International Organization for Migration
Since fighting began in Yemen, more than 10,000 people have been killed.
Some 19 of the country's 28 million people need some form of aid, famine looms and the breakdown of the health system sparked a cholera outbreak that has killed nearly 200 people in less than three weeks.
"The question we all need to be asking ourselves is how long this could go on," said Brown.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Thomson Reuters Foundation)