The United Nations has said it hopes to raise $3.85bn in a donor conference to prevent large-scale famine in Yemen, warning that life in the war-ravaged nation was unbearable, with children enduring a “special kind of hell”.
More than 100 governments and donors will take part in the virtual event on Monday – co-hosted by Sweden and Switzerland – as Yemen’s Houthi rebels push to seize the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s last northern stronghold of Marib.
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Tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions pushed to the brink of famine since a Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily in March 2015 in support of Hadi’s internationally recognised government, which had been unseated by the Houthis.
Two thirds of people in Yemen have almost nothing to eat.
That’s over 20 million people.
— ICRC (@ICRC) March 1, 2021
But with aid funding dropping in 2020 amid the coronavirus downturn, resulting in the closure of many humanitarian programmes, the situation in the country has become even worse.
The UN, which has described the situation in Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and its partners received $1.9bn last year – about half of what was required.
It called on Monday for “immediate funding” to support 16 million people in Yemen, where some two-thirds of the population is in need of some form of aid to survive.
“For most people, life in Yemen is now unbearable. Childhood in Yemen is a special kind of hell. This war is swallowing up a whole generation of Yemenis,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“We must end it now and start dealing with its enormous consequences immediately. This is not the moment to step back from Yemen,” he added.
Speaking later at the conference, Guterres implored all donors to contribute, saying the donations will “make an enormous and concrete difference, in many cases the difference between life and death.”
“The assistance you pledge today, will not only prevent the spread of famine and save lives, it will also create the conditions for lasting peace,” he added.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Jan Egeland warned of a catastrophe “worse than anything we’ve seen in the last generation” if the full amount was not raised at the conference.
“Millions are on the brink of famine. They are already in starvation,” he added as he recounted seeing children in northern Yemen who were “so severely malnourished … that they could die at any moment.”
Egeland said that beyond having a fully-funded aid effort, a famine prevention ceasefire and access for aid workers to all those in need were both urgently needed.
“I hope today will also be the beginning to a political process because we need funding, but that his not enough. We need an end to the war and full and free access to all those in need.
“The message to those attending the conference is: Do not sit and watch the worse humanitarian catastrophe in your political life happen on your watch,” he added.
The United Arab Emirates, which was part of the Saudi-led military coalition until 2019, pledged on Friday to give $230m.
According to the latest UN data, more than 16 million Yemenis – about half the 29-million population – will face hunger this year, and nearly 50,000 are already starving to death in famine-like conditions.
Conflict, poverty and COVID-19 are pushing Yemen to the brink of famine, yet funding is falling far too short.
— UNICEF (@UNICEF) March 1, 2021
It warned that 400,000 Yemeni children under the age of five could die from acute malnutrition.
The UN said in September that critical aid had been cut at 300 health centres across Yemen due to lack of funding, with more than a third of its major humanitarian programmes in the country either reduced or shut down entirely.
The conference is being held amid US efforts to shift the Yemen conflict back to diplomacy after Washington removed the Houthi rebels from a “terror” list and ended support to the devastating Saudi-led military offensive in the Middle East’s most impoverished nation.
Former US President Donald Trump had placed the Houthis on the “terror” list during his last days in office.
In recent weeks, Houthi fighters intensified their campaign to seize Marib, drawing intense air raids from the Saudi-led coalition.
The UN has warned of a potential humanitarian disaster if the fight for Marib continues, saying it has put “millions of civilians at risk”.
Until early last year, life in Marib was relatively peaceful despite the war, and it drew many people from more unstable areas.
But as the front lines shift, there is new peril for civilians, including hundreds of thousands sheltering in camps in the surrounding desert.
“We are at a crossroads with Yemen,” said Mark Lowcock, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs.
“We can choose the path to peace or let Yemenis slide into the world’s worst famine for decades.”