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Funding, fuel, and ‘famine’: Unpacking Yemen’s overlapping crises

‘Famine is very much preventable. This is not a slide – it’s a push.’

A worker hands out bread rations at a charity kitchen in Sana'a
A worker hands out bread rations at a charity kitchen in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, July 2020. (Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS)

A massive shortfall in international funding is forcing aid groups to scale back their work in Yemen, a country enduring what the UN calls the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis”.

As of early October, the UN has received $1.3 billion for Yemen, about 40 percent of what it said it needed for the aid operations it intended to coordinate and carry out in 2020. That’s a major drop from the $3.6 billion it received in 2019, when it asked for $4.2 billion.

The UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, said in a 23 September statement that “the consequences of under-funding are immediate, enormous and devastating”, noting that food distributions have already been cut and health services shut down. She said more programmes would close in the coming weeks if fresh funding doesn’t materialise. A group of NGOs that work in Yemen has also warned that under-funding “is leaving families vulnerable to malnutrition, disease and death”.

After five and a half years of war between Houthi rebels and the internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi – backed by a fractured Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led coalition – the possibility of famine is being raised once again, and the UN says more than 80 percent of Yemen’s population of 30 million is in need of some sort of aid. 

The economy is collapsing, it’s extremely difficult for aid workers to reach people in need, and conflict is flaring again after a period of relative calm. And while famine is the word that garners headlines – and sometimes opens funders’ cheque books – it’s far from the only challenge humanitarians and diplomats face in a conflict where front lines and alliances have often shifted, but where the decimation of lives and livelihoods remains a constant. 

Here are six dimensions of Yemen’s worsening humanitarian catastrophe you should be watching.

Funding

First, the money. The UN says it urgently needs $1 billion to prevent the worst effects of cutbacks, but efforts to pressure the main donors into giving a lot more have so far proved largely unsuccessful.

In a 15 September speech to the Security Council, UN relief chief Mark Lowcock singled out for criticism three donors that are also members of the coalition that backs Hadi – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait – saying that despite their “particular responsibility… [they] have so far given nothing to this year’s UN plan”.

“It is particularly reprehensible to promise money, which gives people hope that help may be on the way, and then to dash those hopes by simply failing to fulfil the promise,” Lowcock said.

Following that throwing down of the gauntlet, Saudi Arabia said it had signed deals to provide over $200 million to Yemen via UN agencies. UN records show that the kingdom has now given a total of $297 million to the UN appeal, but that is down from $1 billion in 2019. Neither Kuwait (which has played an active role in mediation despite its membership in the original coalition) nor the UAE has offered any money this year – after giving $94 million and $420 million in 2019, respectively. None of the three countries responded to questions from The New Humanitarian about their Yemen funding.

In the lead-up to a June pledging conference to drum up money for UN-led efforts in Yemen, donor countries expressed unease about giving to an aid operation plagued by obstruction and diversion – at the same time as they are hit by COVID-19-related economic problems. 

The United States, the largest donor so far in 2020, has been the most outspoken about these concerns. Up to early October, its funding was significantly lower than its 2019 total, but a USAID official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said total spending for the 2020 calendar year in Yemen would reach a level similar to that of last year. 



The official told TNH that operational constraints, fraud, and diversion are holding back its willingness to fund. They argued that “obstructionism” by Houthi rebels “has prevented even fully funded programmes from reaching people in need”.

As a result, the official said, the United States had decided to partially suspend funding to some aid operations in northern Yemen in March 2020, and would now “focus on support to UN agencies who adopted a recalibrated approach that took these constraints into account.”

Hunger

In the same speech in which he condemned donors for not giving what they had promised, Lowcock warned the Security Council that “the spectre of famine” had returned to Yemen.

It’s an outcome that was avoided in 2017 and 2018, although millions of people didn’t have enough to eat and many children did die of malnutrition. A lack of reliable data and the fact that famine has a technical definition make the threshold hard to reach.

As has been the case when Yemenis have gone hungry in the past, there is generally food in the shops and markets. But prices have been rising since the start of the war in 2011, while the economy has collapsed and millions of public servants aren’t being paid. 

These steadily worsening factors have long contributed to a deterioration in the average person’s ability to buy food, only now the situation is even more desperate as relatives outside Yemen are struggling to send money home due to COVID-19-related job losses, the Yemeni rial is falling quickly, and funding shortages have forced the World Food Programme and other aid groups to reduce food distributions. 

“The real concern is not necessarily the numbers we’re seeing right now, but the anticipated and ongoing contextual changes that could impact security in the coming weeks and months.”

Willow Rook, acting country director of Action contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger) in Yemen, told TNH by email that while cases of acute malnutrition have been increasing at its facilities, she’s more worried by what could be to come.

“The real concern is not necessarily the numbers we’re seeing right now, but the anticipated and ongoing contextual changes that could impact security in the coming weeks and months,” Rook said.

She mentioned increasing food prices, reduced access to water and other essential services due to fuel shortages, and reduced humanitarian support due to funding gaps. Restrictions on aid access are also “a major concern”, Rook added. In addition to diverting aid, authorities in various parts of the country have made it increasingly difficult for aid workers to travel and carry out their jobs – conduct Human Rights Watch recently condemned as “criminal.”

Rook also said that famine or worsening food security was not an inevitability, but rather an outcome that could still be stopped.

“I don’t like the word ‘slide’ in reference to food security – it indicates that the trend is accidental, and the outcome predictable or inevitable,” Rook said. “Famine is very much preventable. This is not a slide – it’s a push. People are being pushed into food insecurity by high prices, low purchasing power, a fuel blockade, and a decrease in the humanitarian space due to lack of funding and lack of access.”

Prisoner swaps and peace talks

After a week of secret meetings in Switzerland, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross announced on 27 September that the Houthi rebels and Hadi’s government had agreed to exchange a total of 1,081 prisoners.

A prisoner swap of some sort has been in the making for years. Lists of names (with numbers much higher than 1,000) were being circulated and discussed even before the idea became subsumed into the agreement known as the “Stockholm Accords”, which stopped a government offensive on the port city of Hodeidah in December 2018.

The when, where, and how of the swap has yet to be worked out, but the ICRC’s Middle East director urged the parties to work quickly so the deal would “move from signatures on paper to reality on the ground”.

The UN sees the expected move as an important “confidence-building” measure between the warring sides. UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said the swap “will indicate that when you show good faith and willingness to compromise, as you have, peaceful negotiations can succeed and they will succeed in bringing relief to the Yemeni people and building confidence for the peace process.”

The UN has in the past been criticised for overselling limited progress on talks that have limited inclusion and equally limited local buy-in. For the moment, though, its negotiations may be the only game in town.

A Riyadh-brokered agreement between forces allied with Hadi and southern separatists – both members of the anti-Houthi coalition but rivals for power on the ground – has hit several major stumbling blocks in implementation, while direct talks between the Houthis and Riyadh have not yet shown much concrete progress. At the same time, fighting has been escalating – and forcing people to flee their homes – on several key fronts, notably in previously stable Marib province and south of Hodeidah.

Disease 

After a devastating first wave of COVID-19 – which appeared to peak in Aden, Sana’a, and other cities around May and June – the numbers of cases and deaths from the coronavirus have been declining.

Official figures – 2,041 cases and 544 deaths as of 5 October – are widely believed to be far below the true count, due to limited testing capacity, fear of going to hospitals for treatment, death registries that are no longer functioning, and suppression by the authorities

Even if the first wave has passed, that doesn’t mean Yemen is out of the woods: Humanitarians are concerned about a possible second wave, and there have been delays in bringing in both the supplies and the personnel needed to combat the virus.

Other pressing health concerns are less likely to make headlines.

Cholera, which is endemic to Yemen and was killing one person an hour at the height of an outbreak in 2017, has infected an estimated 180,000 people in 2020, and killed 48 as of August. 

Tens of thousands of Yemenis have been impacted by flash floods and heavy rains in the past few months, forcing many to flee their homes into crowded conditions where the waterborne disease may thrive. According to a UN document outlining aid operations that have been closed or are scheduled to shut down if funding is not received, up to 60 percent of Yemen’s cholera treatment centres are scheduled to close in October. Teams that track and monitor outbreaks will no longer be able to work.

Money shortages also mean that UNICEF support for clean drinking water, like water trucking, will see a drastic reduction, according to the document seen by TNH. The document says this “will immediately and significantly increase the probability that [people in cities across Yemen]... will be at heightened risk of falling sick and dying of cholera and waterborne diseases.”

In the midst of all this, starting in August, the northern province of Sa’adah reported a “vaccine-derived” polio outbreak. This can happen in communities where the oral polio vaccine – which contains a small amount of the live virus – has been used, but not in enough people to give the population immunity: UNICEF says the last house-to-house polio vaccination campaign in Sa’ada was in November 2018. The oral vaccine is used in Yemen because it’s cheaper and easier to transport and administer than the injectable form, which does not contain the virus and so cannot mutate into vaccine-derived cases. 

A UNICEF spokesperson told TNH that a fresh batch of polio vaccines was scheduled to arrive by plane in Yemen on Tuesday, and that “plans are already in place to roll out the vaccination outreach”.

A fight over taxes, fuel, and flights

Acute fuel shortages in the Houthi-controlled north, escalating since June, have led not only to the now-familiar long queues at petrol stations, but also to rising prices that mean essentials like water – which reach many Yemenis via pumps and trucks – are harder to get, and hospitals that depend on generators cannot run at full capacity.

Yemen imports the vast majority of its fuel on oil tankers, which are inspected by the Saudi-led coalition before they are allowed to dock at any port, including Houthi-run Hodeidah. But because of a long-running dispute between the Houthis and Hadi’s government over import taxes and customs revenues, the coalition has been denying most ships permission to dock at Hodeidah. Lowcock has said about half of the normal volume of commercial fuel has entered the northern port since June, because of what he called a “blockade”. 

In a move seen as retaliation, the Houthis announced on 9 September that they would be suspending humanitarian flights to and from Sana’a airport. This did not have a major effect on aid shipments, as most enters country on ships or by truck, but aid workers were unable to come and go, and medical supplies like the polio vaccine were temporarily stuck.

The UN flights have begun moving again in the past week, including a special return flight for patients allowed out of the country for medical care in Jordan. The coalition, which controls the airspace around Sana’a, has blocked all regular civilian flights in and out of the capital since August 2016.

A looming offshore disaster

Yet another victim of political bickering is the FSO Safer, a decaying oil tanker stranded off Yemen’s Red Sea coast. The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies recently called it “a gigantic floating bomb”. 

The tanker was loaded with 1.1 million barrels of crude oil when it parked near Hodeidah more than five years ago, although – given the ship has had almost no maintenance and seawater is said to be leaking in – it’s not clear how much is left or, crucially, how much it is worth. Houthi rebels have so far blocked attempts by UN inspectors to board and eventually repair the ship, reportedly insisting, among other demands, that their own inspectors join the international team. 

There is an ongoing debate about who has the right to sell whatever oil remains on board, but the bigger concern for civilians is the possibility that the FSO Safer’s oil could spill, causing catastrophic damage to the environment and local economy – by some estimates it could release four times more oil than the 1989 Exxon Mobil spill – and a complicated cleanup. 

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