War-torn Yemen is in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen in decades, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned.
“In the absence of immediate action, millions of lives may be lost,” Guterres said on Friday of the country that has endured a five-year war between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and government forces.
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Guterres’ warning comes as the United States threatens to blacklist the Houthi group as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
Aid workers have raised fears such a move would prevent life-saving aid from reaching the country and make things even worse in Yemen.
In his statement, Guterres made only an indirect reference to this possibility.
“I urge all those with influence to act urgently on these issues to stave off catastrophe, and I also request that everyone avoids taking any action that could make the already dire situation even worse,” he said.
Guterres said the reasons for the heightened threat of famine include a sharp drop in funding for the UN-coordinated relief programme, the instability of the Yemeni currency and the warring parties imposing “impediments” for relief organisations.
A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Houthi group. The coalition is assisted by Western powers including the US.
The Houthi rebels control the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and much of the north after a grinding war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Ordinary Yemenis could pay the price
The US labelling the rebels a “terrorist” group would mean many countries would have trouble interacting with the Houthis.
The effect on the Houthis, who are already under US sanctions, may be limited but ordinary Yemenis could pay the price, with further damage to aid programmes already cut back due to record-low funding during the coronavirus pandemic.
Everything from dealing with Houthi officials, handling taxes, using the banking system, paying health workers, buying food and fuel, and arranging internet services could be affected, humanitarian groups say.
A senior Western diplomat said a designation of the Houthis by the US “would certainly not contribute to progress on Yemen”.
“It’s likely that they want to do whatever it takes to increase the pressure on Iran,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
UN officials are trying to revive peace talks to end the war as the country’s suffering is also worsened by an economic and currency collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UN describes Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 80 percent of its people in need of help.
UN aid chief Mark Lowcock has said the UN has received less than half of what it needed this year – about $1.5bn – for its humanitarian operations in Yemen. Last year it received $3bn.