UNITED NATIONS -- A senior U.N. official warned Tuesday that war-torn Yemen is sliding toward famine as the coronavirus spreads and its economy implodes — all amid a funding crisis that is forcing the United Nations to make deeper aid cuts, including stopping treatment for 250,000 severely malnourished children.
“Those children — and many other people — will die without your help,” Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ramesh Rajasingham told the U.N. Security Council. “They feel like they’re being punished unfairly by a world that promised to help but is now turning its back.”
He said the U.N. has received just 21% of its $2.4 billion humanitarian appeal for 2020.
“It is extremely disappointing” that only about half of the $1.35 billion in humanitarian aid pledged in June has actually been paid,” Rajasingham said, adding that the pledge was only half of what the U.N. received last year.
“I call on all donors — and especially Yemen’s neighbors in the Gulf — to pay all pledges now,” he said. “And I call on those who did not pledge, or who pledged less than last year, to increase their support.”
Rajasingham said the U.N. has no good answers to Yemenis asking about cuts that have already been instituted — to allowances for front-line health workers in the pandemic, the closure of primary health facilities that were caring for 1.8 million people, and “reduced food aid for 8 million people when famine is again stalking the country.”
“In the next few weeks, the cuts will go even deeper,” he said. “At the end of the month, we will reduce water and sanitation programs by half in 15 cities. In September, we’ll stop supporting nearly 400 additional health facilities, cutting off 9 million people from medical care. We’ll also stop treating more than a quarter million severely malnourished children.”
As for the economy, he said, Yemen’s exchange rate remains “at crisis levels,” sparking soaring food prices that mean few people can afford to eat as well as rocketing fuel prices that are making water and transport costs even more expensive.
Yemen is divided between Houthi rebels in the north and an internationally recognized government in the south. Both sides have been at war since the Iran-backed Houthis swept across much of the north and seized the capital of Sanaa late in 2014, forcing the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi into exile.
In Mach 2015, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states formed a coalition to take on the Houthis in what they said was an effort to stop Iran’s growing sway in Yemen, which is at the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula overlooking the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.
The conflict has killed more than 100,000 people and created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, with more than 3 million people internally displaced and two-thirds of the population relying on food aid for survival.
The Security Council was briefed behind closed doors by U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths, who has been trying to arrange a cease-fire and launch peace talks between the parties, and by Rajasingham whose remarks were released by the U.N. humanitarian office.
The council expressed “deep concern” at the funding shortfall in a statement after the meeting, warning that it is exacerbating acute malnutrition in the Arab world’s poorest nation.
It expressed strong support for Griffiths and urged the Houthis and government to endorse U.N. proposals for peace.
The council also expressed “deep alarm at the growing risk” that a deteriorating oil tanker loaded with 1.1 million barrels of crude oil that is moored off the coast of Yemen could rupture or explode.
The FSO Safer hasn’t been maintained for over five years and internal documents obtained by The Associated Press in June show that seawater has entered the engine compartment of the tanker, causing damage to pipes and increasing the risk of sinking.
The U.N., which has been trying to send technical experts to the ship for more than a year, is hoping to expedite action, especially since the deadly explosion at Beirut’s port earlier this month and the recent oil spill from a Japanese ship that ran aground on a coral reef in the Indian Ocean.
Rajasingham said the Houthis, who control the area where the Safer is located, issued travel permits for U.N. personnel Sunday, just over a month after a request was made July 14.
“This is an important step forward,” he said, adding that the Houthis also sent “a detailed list of equipment and supplies that they want the team to bring, as well specific repairs they expect the team to complete,” which the experts are examining.
“We are hopeful that this work — the assessment and any feasible initial repairs — can start as quickly as possible,” Rajasingham said.