Humanitarian crisis in Yemen has never been worse — UN official

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UNITED NATIONS, July 28 (Xinhua) — UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock on Tuesday warned that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has never been worse.

“Famine is again on the horizon. Conflict is again escalating. The economy is again in tatters. Humanitarian agencies are again nearly broke,” Lowcock told the Security Council in a briefing. “And then the new problems: COVID-19 is spreading out of control, and we have the sorry saga of the Safer tanker.”

Lowcock warned that funding for the aid operations in Yemen is on the verge of collapse.

The United Nations and partners used to provide food to 13 million hungry people every month in Yemen. Because of funding cuts, only 5 million of those people are still getting full rations. Eight million have had their rations cut in half. Similar cuts are affecting millions of people who rely on aid for water, health care and other needs, he said.

Aid organizations have so far received about 18 percent of what is needed for this year’s humanitarian response plan. What had in recent years been one of the better-funded humanitarian operations around the world is now one of the most underfunded, he said.

It means a 50 percent cut to water and sanitation programs in 15 cities around the country in August. The United Nations will also have to stop hygiene activities for people who recently fled their homes. In September, nearly 400 health facilities, including 189 hospitals, will lose supplies of clean water and essential medicines. That could cut off health care for 9 million people, he warned.

Also in September, money will be running out for the treatment of more than a quarter of a million children who are suffering from severe malnutrition. Without treatment, those children will die, he said.

“It is not difficult to predict the effects of less food, less water and less health care in Yemen. Without more funding, we should all expect large increases in hunger, malnutrition, cholera, COVID-19 — and, above all, death. We should expect many more people to die.”

Despite the lack of funds, demands for assistance are set to increase sharply. Last week, a new food security survey was released covering 133 districts controlled by the government of Yemen. About 40 percent of people in these areas are now estimated to be highly food insecure, an increase from 25 percent from the start of the year. Sixteen districts are now categorized as “Phase 4,” which is one step away from famine conditions. At the beginning of the year, just two districts had been rated as “Phase 4,” he noted.

With adequate funding, humanitarian agencies can address the most immediate needs in Yemen and prevent a renewed slide toward famine. This would spare millions of people from needless suffering, which would in turn help to create more space for the political process, he said.

“The choice before the world is the same as last month: help Yemen now, or watch the country fall into the abyss.”

Yemen’s economy is in free fall with rising prices and fuel shortages, said Lowcock.

When the risk of famine was the greatest in late 2018, the exchange rate had fallen to 800 Yemeni rials to the U.S. dollar. On its current trajectory, economists predict the value of the rial will drop to 1,000 to the dollar in the coming months. Already in some areas, the rate has been well above 700 rials for weeks, he noted.

The exchange rate is one of the major determinants of the price of food and other commodities — nearly all of which are imported. In other words, as the rial collapses, fewer people will eat, he said.

One solution is for the government to finance commercial imports. But the government has run out of foreign exchange. A deposit by Saudi Arabia in the Central Bank is nearly depleted, and oil revenue, a major source of government income, has collapsed.

Yemen needs regular foreign exchange injections to help stabilize the rial, underwrite essential imports and pay salaries, said Lowcock.

Fuel is another key determinant of basic commodity prices. Fuel is needed to distribute goods around the country, pump drinking water and power basic services. In June, only 8,100 metric tons of commercial fuel imports reached Hodeidah, by far the lowest amount ever recorded, said Lowcock.

As a result, drinking water prices have increased, in some cases more than doubling within a few weeks. Aid agencies are increasingly affected, with some reporting they can no longer travel to communities to deliver assistance because there is no fuel.

On top of these challenges, many Yemenis are losing any remaining income at an alarming rate. COVID-19 has cut into remittances — long the country’s invisible lifeline — by as much as 70 percent. A recent survey found that about half of families have lost at least 50 percent of their income since April, he said.

There has been no progress with regard to the Safer, the decaying oil tanker that threatens to spill over a million barrels of oil into the Red Sea, said Lowcock.

If Safer explodes or leaks, the oil spilled could put the ports of Hodeidah and Salif out of action for weeks, or even months, he said.

Lowcock recalled that he warned in late 2017 and again in late 2018 that the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade and attack on Hodeidah was likely to plunge Yemen into famine. Those warnings were heeded. The worst was avoided.

“It would then be the unhappiest of ironies if the failure of Ansar Allah to allow us to deal with the tanker were to be the cause of the loss of the ports. The consequences would be just as I warned in 2017 and 2018. I hope wiser counsels will prevail,” he said, using the official name of the Houthi rebels.

“The rhetoric on Yemen is often reassuring, and the actions relentlessly ruinous,” he said. Enditem

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