Saudi Arabia is co-hosting a United Nations funding summit for Yemen for the first time, despite being one of the key combatants in the country’s five-year devastating war.
The UN hopes the virtual summit will raise $2.4 billion to keep its services running, warning that three-quarters of its major aid programmes were just weeks from closure.
The Saudi-led coalition instigated a bombing campaign in Yemen five years ago in support of the recognised government, after it was ousted from power by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
The conflict has killed more 100,000 people and sparked what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with 80 percent of the country reliant on aid to survive.
Yemen has already limped through the worst outbreak of cholera in modern history and is now trying to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, although only half the country’s health facilities are functioning.
The UN warned that 30 of their 41 major aid programmes are in imminent need of funds to stop them being shut down, with the body having already been forced to suspend payments to some 10,000 health workers in early April.
“Anything below $1.6 billion and the operation will be facing catastrophic cutbacks,” Lise Grande, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, told Reuters ahead of the conference.
“We won’t be able to provide the food people need to survive, or the health care they need or the water or sanitation or the nutrition support which helps to keep 2 million malnourished children from dying,” she said.
The UN-coordinated humanitarian plan received $3.2 billion last year, but so far in 2020 has only secured $474 million, according to aid chief Mark Lowcock. He said most agencies are weeks away from being broke.
Speaking on Thursday, Mr Lowcock defended the decision to co-host with Saudi Arabia, saying Riyadh was a large donor having already pledged $525 million. He added that the UN would continue to call out warring parties on actions “they should not be doing”.
But critics have questioned Riyadh’s prominent role in rallying humanitarian support given they continue to bomb swathes of the country and have been accused of worsening the humanitarian crisis through a crippling land, sea and air blockade on the country.
Saudi Arabia maintains it has spent millions of dollars of aid in Yemen.
Mr Lowcock added that an additional $180 million of funding is also needed to combat coronavirus in a country where the true rate of infection is not known due to woefully inadequate testing capabilities.
The United States said last month it would extend $225 million in emergency aid for food.
Yemen has been wrecked by conflict since the Houthis swept control of Sanaa in late 2014, prompting the Gulf coalition to intervene a few months later.
A second civil war is now bubbling among the former allies in the anti-Houthi alliance, as southern separatists trained and funded by the UAE try to seize the south of the country and declare independence.
Despite the deepening crisis, the UN has already had to cut back its support, amid a funding crisis.
The World Food Programme feeds more than 12 million Yemenis a month, but in April halved rations in northern areas.
The UN’s Grande told Reuters that without an emergency injection of funds, 6.5 million people living in areas with cholera could lose water and sanitation services, while nutrition programmes for 2 million malnourished children would have to be shut.
In addition, basic health services provided at 189 hospitals and 200 primary healthcare units could be lost.
Organisers of Tuesday’s conference said, “Yemen is at a precipice”, adding that “all indications point to Covid-19 spreading fast and wide across the country, overwhelming the health system.”
Medics on the ground have warned of a coronavirus “catastrophe” unfolding as Yemen lacks medical facilities and testing capacity to even workout the spread of the infection.
Doctors without Borders (MSF) that runs the only dedicated Covid-19 treatment centre in Aden said between April 30 to May 24 their centre admitted 228 patients, 99 of whom died.
MSF’s Claire Hadoung told The Independent some patients, who had travelled long distances, were arriving so sick they were dying within hours as there was nothing medics could do.
“Even diagnosis is hard. Just before corona there was a dengue outbreak there was a malaria outbreak, it’s difficult to know what coronavirus is and what is not,”
“What we need is more tests, we need more Personal Protective Equipment as we are running quite short and there is a worldwide shortage,” she added
“We are working out supplies on a week-by week basis.”