Saudi Arabia and the United Nations are making an urgent plea for funding to shore up aid operations in war-torn Yemen, as some relief groups say they have been forced to stop their work even as coronavirus rips through the country.
Ahead of a pledging conference for Yemen on Tuesday, the UN said some 30 of 41 major aid programmes would close in the next few weeks without funding. Already, the global body’s World Food Programme had to cut rations in half, and UN-funded health services were reduced in 189 out of 369 hospitals nationwide.
“It’s almost impossible to look a family in the face, to look them in the eyes and say, ‘I’m sorry but the food that you need in order to survive, we have to cut in half,'” Lise Grande, resident UN coordinator for Yemen, told The Associated Press.
Tuesday’s conference, at which the UN hopes to raise $2.4bn, will be cohosted for the first time by Saudi Arabia – a major player in Yemen’s civil war since it first unleashed a bombing campaign in 2015 to try to push back Houthi rebels who seized the northern half of the country.
Critics question the Saudis’ high-profile role in rallying humanitarian support even as they continue to wage a war – as do the Houthis – that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The air war and fighting on the ground have killed more than 100,000 people, shut down or destroyed half of Yemen’s health facilities, and driven four million Yemenis from their homes. Cholera epidemics and severe malnutrition among children have led to thousands of additional deaths.
As the war enters its sixth year with no sign of a viable ceasefire, the suffering looks set to continue.
A spokesman for the Houthis dismissed the Saudi-led conference as a “silly attempt to [gloss over] their crimes”, according to rebel-run Masirah television.
Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a Yemeni researcher and a non-resident fellow at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, said the kingdom is trying to repair its international image by changing the conversation.
Saudi Arabia “has always tried to change the narrative of the war and present itself as a backer of the legitimate government, not part of the conflict”, she said.
In past years, the kingdom had been one of the top donors for UN humanitarian aid operations in Yemen. The Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, said the kingdom would allocate half a billion dollars this year to support UN programmes, including $25m for a COVID-19 response plan.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, and Mark Lowcock, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, will take part in the aid conference.
“We are increasingly alarmed about the situation in Yemen,” officials from UNICEF, the World Food Programme, and the World Health Organization said in a joint statement.
“We are running out of time.”
International medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has warned Yemen faces a “catastrophe” from the pandemic, its fragile healthcare system blighted by years of conflict.
The UN says COVID-19 has likely already spread through most of Yemen, while the Yemeni government has officially recorded only a few hundred cases.
The United Kingdom, a leading arms supplier to Saudi Arabia, pledged 160 million pounds ($200m) for Yemen.
“This targeted UK aid package will mean the difference between life and death for thousands of Yemenis who now also face the threat of coronavirus,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.
“Our support will help ensure families can feed themselves and access clean water and medical care,” he said.
The UN received $3.6bn in 2019 in international donations for its campaign, short of its $4.2bn goal. For its 2020 plan, it has so far received only 15 percent of the needed $3.5bn.