Overshadowed by Ukraine war, Yemen on brink as pledges fall short

The UN was seeking $4.3bn but it could raise only $1.3bn, with some major donors missing, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia.

UN agencies had warned before the conference that up to 19 million people could need food assistance in the second half of 2022
UN agencies had warned before the conference that up to 19 million people could need food assistance in the second half of 2022 [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

The United Nations and aid groups have warned of grave consequences for Yemen after an international pledging conference failed to raise enough money to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the war-torn country.

Overshadowed by the conflict in Ukraine, aid-starved Yemen – already suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations – is on the verge of total collapse.

“A shortfall in funding means the needs of people will not be met,” said Auke Lootsma, the UN Development Programme’s resident representative to Yemen.

“The outlook for next year looks very bleak for Yemen. This is the bleakest situation we’ve had so far in the country.”

The UN had sought $4.3bn to address Yemen’s food shortages this year and prevent 19 million people from going hungry.

But only $1.3bn could be raised at the conference on Wednesday in the Swiss city of Geneva.

“The $1.3bn committed at the pledging conference out of just over $4bn requested was a disappointment,” said Abeer Etefa, a World Food Programme spokeswoman for the Middle East and North Africa region.

With the country almost completely dependent on imports, aid groups say the situation will only worsen following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which produces nearly a third of Yemeni wheat supplies.

Some 80 percent of its about 30 million people depend on aid for survival, after seven years of a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, directly or indirectly.

The UN voiced disappointment as it has repeatedly warned that aid agencies are running out of funds, forcing them to slash “life-saving” programmes.

Famine conditions

Rights activists have blamed the fighting between the Saudi-led military coalition and the Houthi rebels for causing the unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The coalition launched a military offensive in 2015 in support of the country’s internationally recognised government, which was toppled by the Iran-linked group.

The WFP has said the levels of hunger risk becoming catastrophic as the Ukraine crisis pushes up food prices.

Even before Russia invaded its neighbour, the WFP said Yemeni food rations were being reduced for eight million people this year, while another five million “at immediate risk of slipping into famine conditions” would remain on full rations.

“Clearly, pressing concerns over events in Ukraine cast a shadow on [the pledging] event,” Etefa of the WFP said.

UN agencies had warned before the conference that up to 19 million people could need food assistance in the second half of 2022.

“We’d hoped for more, particularly from donors in the region who have yet to step up and commit funds for a crisis in their back yard,” Etefa said.

“If we act now, we can avert what could be a point of no return and we can save millions.”

Major donors, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which were among the top three at last year’s conference, did not pledge funds this year.

The two oil-rich Gulf countries are leading members of the military coalition that intervened in the Yemen war in 2015, shortly after the Houthi rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, and subsequently much of the north.

The UAE withdrew troops from the country in 2019 but remains an active player.

‘Lives will be lost’

“Some of Yemen’s affluent neighbours, also parties to the conflict, have so far pledged nothing for 2022. We hope this will change,” Erin Hutchinson, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Yemen country director, told AFP.

“It is a catastrophic outcome for the humanitarian response in Yemen. More people are in need this year in Yemen than in 2021. More lives will be lost.”

During Wednesday’s pledging conference, representatives from Saudi Arabia and the UAE stressed the need to stop the Houthi’s “terrorist” actions, with the Emirati official saying the rebels “obstruct and deviate aid”.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, said it has provided more than $19bn in aid and development to the country in the past few years.

“Coalition partners appear now to prefer to control their own funding for Yemen, rather than leave it to the UN,” Elisabeth Kendall, a researcher at the University of Oxford, told AFP.

“This may be because Yemen’s worst-hit areas are under Houthi control, so it may be unpalatable to see their aid flowing into the very areas over which they are fighting.”

According to Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, the coalition partners “appear to make their humanitarian response in the way that reaps the greater political benefit, through their own organisations”.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council said on Thursday it seeks to host discussions between Yemen’s warring sides in Saudi Arabia, despite the Houthi rebels’ rejection of talks in “enemy countries”.

Source: AFP