The U.N. sounded the alarm a day after its appeal for countries to fund emergency aid in the Arab world’s poorest nation fell a billion dollars short of what aid agencies needed — $2.41 billion — to cover essential programs from June to December.
Already, 75% of U.N. programs in Yemen, covering essentially every sector, from food to health care and nutrition, have had to shut their doors or reduce operations amid a shortage of funds. The World Food Program had to cut rations in half and U.N.-funded health services were reduced in 189 out of 369 hospitals nationwide.
Yemen has careened from one disaster to another in recent years, but aid groups warn the country of 30 million faces its darkest hour with the spread of the coronavirus. The country's hospitals, which lack adequate electricity, protective gear for health workers, ventilators and other life-saving equipment, are simply not equipped to handle an outbreak of the virus.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been at war against Iranian-allied Houthis in Yemen since 2015. 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 reliant on food assistance for survival.
Zoe Paxton, spokesperson for the U.N. humanitarian office, said if aid isn't paid immediately, response teams working to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Yemen “will likely close by the end of this month," severely handicapping efforts to contain the coronavirus, which is spreading at an alarming rate throughout the country.
The virus threatens to decimate Yemen's health care system, already ravaged by civil war. Paxton said the U.N. will likely start winding down some of its disease outbreak and control programs next month, including efforts to contain cholera, malaria and dengue fever, among other diseases.
Tuesday’s conference raised $1.35 billion, about half of what is needed, and half of the $2.6 billion that countries pledged at the same conference last year. Saudi Arabia, which co-hosted this year's U.N. pledging event, reiterated previous announcements made that it would pay half a billion dollars in aid for Yemen this year, $300 million of which will be funneled to the U.N. and related aid agencies. It is the largest amount pledged by any country.
However, U.N. tracking figures show the kingdom has paid just $16 million of that amount to the U.N. response plan so far this year. The UAE announced no pledges of humanitarian aid for Yemen during the U.N. conference. The UAE says it has spent $37 million in overall aid for Yemen this year, and has plans to spend more.
When asked, the UAE's Minister of State for International Cooperation, Reem Al-Hashimy, said the country has provided more than $6 billion in aid to Yemen since the start of the war. In May, the UAE sent 87 tons of medical supplies to Yemen, including 65 ventilators.
A key factor contributing to dwindling international funds is obstruction by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who control the capital, Sanaa, and most of the country’s north. The United States decreased its aid to Yemen earlier this year, citing interference by the Houthis.
A person familiar with Saudi and Emirati policy making, who was not authorized to speak to the media, told The Associated Press that while the two nations are Yemen's largest donors of humanitarian aid, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are considering how to ensure aid reaches Yemeni civilians and is not diverted by the Houthis. The UAE in particular is reviewing the most effective means of doing so, the person said.
Some aid workers say donors appear to have lost confidence in the U.N.'s ability to implement programs amid restrictions by Houthis, as well as the reduced presence of U.N. staff and aid workers in the country.
Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, called for the money pledged on Tuesday to be “disbursed immediately". “But money alone is not enough,” Egeland added. “These pledges are worth little if people are still fleeing from bombs and crossfire and their hospitals attacked.”
Since April, authorities in areas controlled by Yemen’s internationally recognized government have reported around 400 coronavirus cases, including 87 deaths. The Iran-backed rebel Houthis have declared only four cases of COVID-19, including one death. The group faces heavy criticism for suppressing information about the number of virus cases and fatalities in areas they control.
The World Health Organization believes there is significant underestimation of the outbreak, which could further hinder efforts to get needed supplies into Yemen to contain the virus. Yemen's civil war erupted in 2014, when the Houthi rebels captured Sanaa, forcing the internationally recognized government to flee. In March of 2015, a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition began air bombings to try and dislodge the Houthis while imposing a land, sea and air embargo on Yemen.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer reported from the United Nations.