The United Nations’ top humanitarian official in Yemen says that while widespread famine was averted in the country earlier this year with a surge in donor support, the situation is fragile and many essential programs remain at risk of further cuts.
“It's not enough that we just got that one push, we need a continuous stream of support coming in over the next weeks into 2022,” David Gressly told VOA. “And until this crisis is solved politically, this situation on the ground will persist.”
WATCH: The UN's David Gressly Speaks With VOA
Seven years of war between the Saudi-backed government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and Iranian-supported Houthi rebels has pushed the Middle East’s poorest country to the brink.
Ongoing U.N. efforts to broker a nationwide cease-fire, reopen Sana’a airport, ease restrictions on the flow of fuel and other imports through Hodeidah port, and get direct talks going again have been unsuccessful.
More than 20 million Yemenis – in a population of around 30 million – need humanitarian assistance. The World Food Program says 16 million of them are “marching towards starvation,” due to a combination of conflict and a crippling economic crisis.
The situation of children is especially critical: the U.N. says one child dies every 10 minutes from preventable causes, including malnutrition and vaccine-preventable diseases.
The United Nations has appealed for nearly $4 billion to meet needs through December. Gressly said they have received about $2.6 billion in cash and pledges, casting uncertainty over the future of some assistance.
In March, there was a severe shortage of humanitarian funding for Yemen, which caused WFP to halve rations to people already in dire need. An injection of cash from major donors, including the United States, Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, helped restore them to full rations, but Gressly said without sustained funding, his “greatest fear” is this could happen again.
WFP’s executive director, David Beasley, warned last week that without more money, his agency may have to cut rations to 3.2 million people by October, and by December that number could grow to 5 million people.
While funding to food and nutrition programs is up, Gressly said other essential sectors including health, water and sanitation are 80-85% underfunded.
Gressly, who took up his post in March, says food and other items are available in most of Yemen’s urban markets, but with rampant inflation driving up prices, unemployment, exhausted savings, and civil servants not being paid, people simply do not have the money to buy things.
“It’s an affordability crisis,” he said.
“That's why we need to find a complementary strategy, one that addresses not only humanitarian assistance directly to those in need, but also an economic one that takes a look at what can -- even in the context of a conflict -- what can be done to help revive at least, in part, the economy,” he added.
Yemen’s already overstretched health care system is also coping with a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
While confirmed cases have been low compared to other countries – just over 9,000 according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center – there has been a high proportion of deaths – more than 1,700.
Gressly said vaccinations have also been very slow to roll out and it will take years to vaccinate the entire country.
“The bigger issue is probably twofold: one is getting enough vaccine in the country -- we're not getting anywhere near enough for the population, maybe between 1 and 2 percent,” he said. “So that's not going to make a major difference on its own.”
The vaccine alliance, COVAX, has allocated nearly 3 million doses for Yemen. Only 868,000 have been shipped so far.
“Secondly, there's a lot of hesitation in the south and denial by authorities in the north on the reality of COVID and the necessity for vaccination,” he noted of the different factions in control of Yemen’s territory.
Earlier this week, Gressly met with USAID officials in Washington, where he pressed for continued humanitarian funding into next year and support for economic initiatives.
The United States pledged an additional $290 million to humanitarian efforts in Yemen at a donors conference on the sidelines of last week’s U.N. General Assembly. It has provided nearly $806 million in humanitarian assistance since last October.