Last week's UN-Saudi pledging conference for Yemen was pitiful to watch on UN television. Although the goal set for the exercise was $2.41 billion, the amount pledged was only $1.35 billion, more than $1 billion short. The event was "attended" virtually by more than 124 UN member states, international organisations, United Nations agencies, and non-governmental and civil society bodies.
As the pledging process proceeded painfully, Mark Lowcock, UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, appeared increasingly distressed. At the end when the figure was announced, he said efforts would continue to raise the funds needed by Yemen, beset by poverty, war, hunger, cholera, dengue and now Covid-19.
The number of recorded covid cases has risen to more than 500, of whom a quarter have died, but the true figures may never be known. In the south, nominally under the Saudi-sponsored government, hundreds of people have expired in their homes or in displaced camps. The Houthi rebels, who control the north and rule the majority of the population, have reported a handful of cases. The claimed low infection rate is countered by the count at the sole hospital treating Covid-19 cases in the capital, Sanaa, where 50 of the 200 patients have died. A number of medical staff have also expired. Covid-19 has taken hold during resurgence of cholera with the onset of summer.
Lowcock demanded that donors pay up as there is no time to waste when confronting Yemen's ills. Last year, $3.68 billion was raised, while up to the time of the virtual conference, the amount donated was a paltry $474 million. The $2.41 billion is needed to cover expenditures until the end of this year.
The shortfall threatens to close 30 out of 41 major international programmes that provide food, healthcare and other essential services for 80 per cent of Yemen's 28 million people. Medical staff has not been paid since the coronavirus appeared in early April.
Ahead of the pledging event, UN humanitarian coordinator Lisa Grande warned, "Anything below $1.6 billion and the operation will be facing catastrophic cutbacks.
"We won't be able to provide the food people need to survive, or the health care they need or the water or sanitation or the nutrition support which helps to keep two million malnourished children from dying," she stated.
Following the conference, she spelled out a timetable of disaster, "General health services in 189 of the country's 369 hospitals start to close in three weeks. Water and sanitation services for 8.5 million people, including three million children, close in three weeks. Nutrition support for 2.5 million malnourished starving children to close in eight to 10 weeks."
Over the past five years, the number of Yemenis in need has grown from 15.9 to 24 million, and the aid budget from $892 million to the proposed $2.884 billion for 2020. Yemen is the world's wors thumanitarian disaster. The advent and unchecked spread of the coronavirus threatens increased misery and death. The health of most Yemenis has deteriorated over the past five years due to warfare and want. Most Yemenis do not have the ability to isolate or create distance between each other or possess the running water and soap to fend off Covid-19.
More than 110,000 people have died in fighting since the Saudi-Emirati led coalition intervened in March 2015 to prevent a country-wide take over by Houthi rebels who, in 2014, expelled Saudi-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi from the capital, Sanaa. At least an equal number of Yemenis have been killed by starvation and disease. While the UAE has withdrawn its forces from the Yemeni battlefield, Saudi Arabia continues to fight the northern Houthi rebels, Riyadh's original antagonists, and more recently to battle against the southern separatist Transitional Council. It seeks to re-divide Yemen which united to form the Yemen Republic in 1990.
Dubbed by the Romans, Arabia Felix, or Fortunate Arabia, because of its green mountains, ports and potentially rich farm land, Yemen has not been fortunate for decades, perhaps, centuries. The country is 168th in a UN list of 177 countries in terms of life expectancy, education and standard of living. Last October, the UN Development Programme predicted that if fighting continues through 2022, "Yemen will rank the poorest country in the world, with 79 per cent of the population living under the poverty line and 65 per cent classified as extremely poor."
Although Yemen has considerable untapped oil and gas reserves and good agricultural land, it has remained one of the poorest of the globe's less developed countries. An earlier civil war (1962-70) fought between supporters of the 1,000-year-old kingdom and republicans devastated the north, while drought cut agricultural production.
By shifting their money-making crop from coffee to mildly stimulating qat, Yemeni farmers both consumed too much of Yemen's precious water and introduced a debilitating drug habit to the country. Food production fell, making Yemen dependent on imports of foodstuffs and other basic needs. As a result of the war, Yemen's currency has lost value and inflation soared. Electricity, water and sanitation infrastructure have been destroyed and do not meet the needs of the country's growing population. Yemen needs large injections of funds to develop but cannot halt its downward trajectory and secure progress as long as it is at war and divided. Food and medical aid sustains Yemeni lives but does not ensure survival of the country.
Michael Jensen is a columnist in The Jordan Times
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