The head of the United Nations stood in front of a room full of global leaders Tuesday and made a plaintive plea: “On average, a child under the age of 5 dies of preventable causes in Yemen every 10 minutes,” António Guterres said. “This means 50 children in Yemen will die during today’s conference, and all of those deaths could have been prevented.”
Whether his last claim is true is certainly up for debate, but what Guterres is asking for would most certainly help: $2.1 billion in funding to combat deepening hunger and disease across Yemen.
After two years of civil war, Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, is facing collapse. Its currency, agriculture, infrastructure, health care and even the most basic social cohesion have been destroyed by the war, and about 7 million people are on the brink of starvation, while two-thirds of the population relies on humanitarian aid to survive.
“We are witnessing the starving and the crippling of an entire generation,” Guterres said. “We must act now to save lives.”
A half-million children are so severely malnourished that they are likely to die if they do not receive urgent care, said the U.N. children’s agency and the World Food Program.
The fundraising conference in Geneva has already raised $1.1 billion, raising hopes that by the end of this year the U.N.'s goal could be reached. A broader call for $4.4 billion to address food crises in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria is still unfulfilled.
In an irony, Saudi Arabia has made the biggest public funding pledge, promising $150 million for Yemen. Much of the physical destruction in the country has been wrought by a Saudi-led air campaign — backed by the United States and others — that human rights activists say has indiscriminately targeted civilians. Kuwait, Germany and the United States have pledged lesser sums.
The war in Yemen has pitted the Saudi-backed government against a northern Yemeni rebel group known as the Houthis. The Saudis lead a Sunni-Arab military coalition that regards the Houthis, a Shiite group, as a proxy force for Iran. The Houthis control the capital, Sanaa, as well as much of Yemen's western coast, including the pivotal port of Hodeida. Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, and 70 percent of that comes through Hodeida, which the Saudi navy is blockading, letting only a trickle through.
Reports have swirled recently about an impending assault on the city, Yemen's fourth-largest, by Saudi forces. About 100,000 internally displaced people live there. The Saudis claim that the port serves as an entry point for weapons supplies to Houthis, but aid agencies have voiced skepticism at the claim, given the blockade and the fact that the United Nations inspects each arriving ship.
The trigger for famine in Yemen could be an assault on Hodeida. If even the severely restricted flow of food is disrupted and fighting limits access to aid agencies, those living day-to-day will be without any other option.
“We are concerned about facilities in Yemen because at this stage we can't afford to even lose one bridge or one road network, let alone lose a major facility like the Hodeida port,” Muhannad Hadi, regional director for the World Food Program, told Reuters.