NEW YORK–Some 16 million Yemenis – more than half the population of the Arabian Peninsula country –are going hungry, the United Nations says. Of those, five million are on the brink of famine, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warns.
On Monday the United Nations hopes to raise some $3.85 billion at a virtual pledging event to avert what Lowcock says would be a large-scale “man-made” famine, the worst the world will have seen for decades.
More than six years of war in Yemen – widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran – have sent the impoverished country spiralling into what the United Nations describes as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Some 80% of Yemenis need help, with 400,000 children under the age of five severely malnourished, according to UN data. For much of its food, the country relies on imports that have been badly disrupted over the years by all warring parties.
“Before the war Yemen was a poor country with a malnutrition problem, but it was one which had a functioning economy, a government that provided services to quite a lot of its people, a national infrastructure and an export base,” Lowcock told reporters. “The war has largely destroyed all of that.”
“In the modern world famines are basically about people having no income and then other people blocking efforts to help them. That’s basically what we’ve got in Yemen,” he added.
Hunger but also a pandemic
A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the Iran-aligned Houthi group ousted the country’s government from Sana’a. The Houthis say they are fighting a corrupt system. The people’s suffering has been worsened by an economic and currency collapse, and by the COVID-19 pandemic.
UN officials are trying to revive peace talks, and new US President Joe Biden has said Yemen is a priority, declaring a halt to US support for the Saudi-led military campaign and demanding the war “has to end.”
Twelve aid groups, including Oxfam, Save the Children and Care International, have warned that 2.3 million children under the age of five in Yemen will go hungry this year if governments do not step up their funding on Monday.
Muhsin Siddiquey, Oxfam’s country director in Yemen, recounted a conversation with an 18-year-old woman, displaced by the conflict and living in a camp in northern Yemen.
“She said that the coronavirus pandemic gives us two cruel choices: either we stay home and we die from hunger, or we go out and then die from the disease,” Siddiquey said.
Official figures vastly underestimate the spread of COVID-19 in Yemen, according to the United Nations and aid agencies.
In 2018 and 2019, the United Nations prevented famine due to a well-funded aid appeal, which included large donations from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
In 2020 the United Nations only received just over half the $3.4 billion it needed, which Lowcock said was largely due to smaller contributions from Gulf countries. He urged them to pledge generously for 2021 and pay quickly.
The United Arab Emirates said on Friday it would pledge $230 million for 2021.
War raging on
Despite Biden’s call for the war to end, violence is escalating across Yemen, with more than 60 fighters killed Friday in clashes between Houthis and government forces in the strategic northern province of Marib, government sources said.
Earlier this month, the Houthis resumed a push to capture Marib city, 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of the rebel-held capital Sana’a.
The city lies close to some of Yemen’s richest oil fields and its capture would be major prize for the rebels.
Friday’s dead included at least 27 pro-government forces and 34 Houthi militiamen, a government source said, adding it was the “most violent” day of clashes since fighting erupted on February 8.
The Houthis moved into hills near a dam southwest of Marib city — the last major toehold in the north for Yemen’s Saudi-backed government — with the area witnessing “the fiercest battles”, according to the source.
A military source said that pro-government forces repelled the Houthi advances and reported heavy fighting that lasted “more than eight hours” in the Ablah region, south of Marib city.
There was loss of life on both sides, the military source added, without providing further details.
Yemeni military sources said air strikes targeted Houthi positions in several parts of the province.
The Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV channel reported 21 air strikes in different areas.
The upsurge in violence this month has come shortly after Washington decided to remove the rebels from its list of terrorist groups, in order to ensure aid is unimpeded, and to pave the way to restart peace talks.
Observers say the Houthis want to capture Marib as leverage before entering into any negotiations.
The United Nations 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 civil war.
But as the front lines shift, and air raids by Saudi Arabia and its allies pound the area, there is new peril for civilians, with hundreds of thousands sheltering in camps in the surrounding desert that extends to the Saudi border.
Loyalist military officials said earlier this month that the Houthis had been using residents of one camp in the province’s Sirwah district as “human shields.”
The fighting shows no signs of abating despite heavy losses on both sides.