Saudi co-hosts funding summit for war-torn Yemen, as UN warns majority of programmes weeks from closure

Bel Trew
A wounded Yemeni girl exercises at a clinic for prosthetic limbs and physical rehabilitation in the capital Sanaa: Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images

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 devastating five-year war.

The UN hopes the virtual summit will raise $2.4bn (£1.9bn) 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 in 2015 in support of the recognised government that had been ousted from power by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The conflict has killed more than 100,000 people and sparked what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 80 per cent 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 coronavirus, although only half of 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 about 10,000 health workers in early April.

“Anything below $1.6bn 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 healthcare 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 $3.2bn last year, but so far in 2020 has only secured $474m, according to aid chief Mark Lowcock. He said most agencies are weeks away from being broke.​

Yemeni children receive treatment at a hospital after being wounded in an airstrike on a school bus in Saada (Stringer/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Lowcock defended the decision to co-host with Saudi Arabia, saying Riyadh was a large donor, having already pledged $525m. He added that the UN would continue to call out warring parties on actions “they should not be doing”.

However, critics have questioned Riyadh’s prominent role in rallying humanitarian support given that 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 that it has spent millions of dollars of aid in Yemen.

Mr Lowcock added that an additional $180m of funding is needed to combat the coronavirus in a country where the true rate of infection is not known because of woefully inadequate testing capabilities.

The United States said last month it would extend $225m in emergency aid for food.

Yemen has been wrecked by conflict since the Houthis took control of Sana'a 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.

A fighter loyal to Yemen’s southern separatists on the frontline during clashes with pro-government forces for control of Zinjibar (AFP via Getty Images)

Despite the deepening turmoil, 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 it halved rations in northern areas.

Ms 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 that “Yemen is at a precipice”, adding: “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 work out the spread of the infection.

A medical worker measures the body temperature of a man at a state-run facility in Sana’a (Getty)

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which runs the only dedicated Covid-19 treatment centre in Aden, said that between 30 April and 24 May their centre admitted 228 patients, 99 of whom died.

MSF’s Claire Ha-Duong told The Independent some patients, who had travelled long distances, were so sick when they arrived that they were dying within hours because 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 is coronavirus 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.”

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