Yemen faces ‘catastrophe’ as aid funding falls short

Donors pledge more than $1.5bn for Yemen, but aid agencies say it is not enough to tackle twin threats of war and pandemic    

International donors have pledged $1.53bn in aid money for crisis-stricken Yemen as it strains under the weight of five years of civil war and now the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.

But the commitments fall far short of the $2.4bn the United Nations says it needs to maintain the world’s biggest humanitarian operation, where four out of every five people are reliant on aid to stay alive.

Funding shortages have already led to cutbacks in food aid and maternity care. The arrival of the coronavirus in the country – where just half of health facilities are operational and there are shortages of drugs and medical equipment – has been described as a “catastrophe” by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

“Tackling Covid-19 on top of the existing humanitarian emergency requires urgent action,” UN secretary general António Guterres told donors ahead of a virtual pledging event hosted by Saudi Arabia. “The pandemic is making it even more difficult and dangerous for humanitarian workers to reach Yemenis with lifesaving aid.”

Of the hospitals that remain operational, many do not have reliable electricity. Regular handwashing is also a major challenge when just half of the population has access to clean water.

“The population is exhausted, and the country is exposed to the threat of this virus in a way few others are.”

Yemeni authorities have reported 482 coronavirus infections and 111 deaths, indicating a case fatality ratio four times higher than the global average.

Limited testing capacity means there are likely to be more positive cases than are being officially reported – and many more deaths.

"Millions of Yemeni people are staring down the double barrel of starvation and a global pandemic,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “This still falls far short of what is needed to alleviate the suffering.” 

He added: “The money pledged needs to be disbursed immediately and donors who failed to put their hands in their pockets must step up.”

Thirty countries – out of 125 who attended the online pledging event - offered financial support to the UN’s response in Yemen.

The largest pledge came from Saudi Arabia at $500m, followed by $225m from the United States, $196.5m from the United Kingdom and $137.97m from Germany.

Crisis-stricken Yemen’s latest war began in 2015 and more than 100,000 people – among them some 12,000 civilians - are estimated to have been killed in the conflict. 

Alongside the bombs, land mines and shootings, Yemenis have also had to contend with cholera, dengue fever, cyclones and flooding. Aid agencies have warned the country is teetering on famine, with two million Yemini children suffering from acute malnutrition.

“Yemenis cannot face the scourge of Covid-19 alone,” warned Fabrizio Carboni, regional director for the near and Middle East for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “The population is exhausted, and the country is exposed to the threat of this virus in a way few others are.”