UNITED NATIONS (Rahnuma): UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock on Friday warned against complacency over the success of UN-brokered Yemen talks, saying “a terrible tragedy is unfolding” in the country.
“This week’s success must not lead to complacency — in fact it must do the opposite. Commitments must be implemented. Working toward peace must be accelerated. In the meantime, millions of Yemenis still desperately need assistance and protection,” Lowcock told the Security Council, referring to progress in UN-brokered intra-Yemeni talks in Sweden.
After a week of “consultations” in Sweden, the Yemeni warring parties have agreed to stop fighting in the rebel-held port city of Hudaydah, on which millions of Yemenis depend for imports of food and fuel.
But Lowcock warned that there is a long way to go despite the success in Sweden.
“I have earlier today chaired another detailed discussion on Yemen with the heads of all the key UN and other operational humanitarian agencies. Our collective assessment is that the good news we have heard this week has not yet had any material impact on the millions of people who need assistance,” he told the council. “The lesson is two-fold: progress is absolutely possible, but we need much more of it right now.”
Lowcock, who visited Yemen recently, said the humanitarian situation in the country is getting worse.
“I can again confirm what humanitarian agencies have known for a long time: a terrible tragedy is unfolding in Yemen. And it is getting worse. Millions of people are starving, sick and desperate. They have one message for the world: this war needs to stop.”
More than 20 million Yemenis — two-thirds of the total population — are food insecure, and 10 million of them are severely food insecure, more than twice the number before the war, he cited a recent comprehensive survey as showing.
The figures came from a consortium of agencies, which conducted a food security survey in 330 of Yemen’s 333 districts, had the data analyzed and scrutinized by multiple organizations and reviewed by independent experts before the publication of their Integrated Phase Classification report last week.
More than half of the districts across Yemen have slipped into “emergency” conditions, nearly 60 percent more than last year, said Lowcock.
For the first time, the report documents “Phase 5” conditions in Yemen, which means extreme food gaps, very high malnutrition rates and excessive mortality, he said.
“The results decisively confirm Yemen’s descent toward famine. Even for experienced aid workers, the numbers are shocking,” he said.
The economic crisis is taking a heavy toll on the country’s humanitarian situation. Yemenis’livelihoods and access to income have been decimated, and agricultural production has fallen by nearly a third. Food prices are 150 percent higher than they were before the crisis. These developments have left millions more Yemenis unable to afford food and other essential goods, said Lowcock.
He called for international efforts to buttress the Yemeni economy.
Foreign currency injections over the last two months from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been effective in stabilizing the exchange rate, financing imports of essential goods and paying pensions and civil servant salaries, he said.
The Yemeni rial is currently trading at just over 500 to the U.S. dollar, which represents a marked appreciation compared to a few weeks ago. But a dollar still costs more than twice as many rials as before the current conflict, said Lowcock.
Research indicates that the exchange rate needs to come down to about 440 to the dollar before it will have a wider impact on people’s ability to afford food and other essential goods, he said.
To achieve this, and to finance imports, pay salaries and pensions, and meet minimum costs reliably, the Yemeni government is going to need billions of dollars in external support for its budget in 2019, he said.
Lowcock emphasized that the primary cause of the humanitarian crisis is the ongoing conflict. It is no coincidence that two-thirds of the people most at risk of starvation live in Hajjah, Hudaydah, Saada and Taizz — the places where the violence has been most intense this year, he noted.
The agreement on Hudaydah reached in Sweden offers hopes for a real cessation of hostilities, he said. “As the details (of the agreement) are being worked out, we continue to call for a full cessation of hostilities across the country.”
“Up to now, we have only seen a reduction in fighting in some areas — not a full cessation. In the last week, nearly 450 conflict incidents were reported across Yemen, about a third of them in Hudaydah.”
He asked the warring parties to continue to engage seriously with Martin Griffiths, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’special envoy for Yemen, in the peacemaking process, including implementing the agreements reached in Sweden.
The parties have agreed to reconvene in January.
Lowcock asked to protect the supply of food and essential goods, and to facilitate aid operations. “That means keeping all ports open, easing entry and movement restrictions, protecting humanitarian supplies and facilitating aid workers in doing their jobs.”
Restrictions on humanitarian access are a serious and growing problem, he said.
Last month, the Yemeni government lifted restrictions on food imports. In November, food imports through the Red Sea ports of Hudaydah and Saleef, where most food enters the country, rose by 15 percent, although the quantity remained below what was needed, said Lowcock.
“We also continue to call on the government to lift restrictions on fuel imports, which are needed to power hospital generators, keep water networks running and for other critical tasks across the country. These restrictions are currently blocking over 70,000 tons of fuel from entering Hudaydah port.”
Aid operations at Aden port, where congestion has been a severe problem, have started to improve after the government instructed port authorities to accelerate processing times following Lowcock’s intervention. He demanded, as an immediate step, the release of some 1,250 World Food Programme containers that have been stuck at Aden port for months.
Lowcock deplored the fact that the Red Sea Mills in Hudaydah has been inaccessible since fighting escalated around them in September.
Fighters have regularly impinged upon the compound, and the site was repeatedly struck by mortar fire. Early last month, the mills came under the control of government-backed forces. But access since then has been hampered by difficulties in moving across front lines and concerns that the area — potentially including the entrance to the mills — may have been mined.
“Because of all this, enough food to feed 3.5 million people for a month has now sat useless in a warehouse for more than three months. … As of today, we have no idea if the Red Sea Mills can still operate or how much of the donor-funded grain has been damaged or spoiled.”
The Red Sea Mills are just one site among a very large number of mills, silos and warehouses located in and around Hudaydah. If these sites are hit or damaged, aid operations could very quickly grind to a halt, he warned.
That is why the agreement to end conflict in Hudaydah is so important, he noted.
Lowcock also asked the rebel authorities in Sanaa to honor their commitments of lifting restrictions and bureaucratic impediments to humanitarian aid organizations, including delays in visas and customs, NGO registration, and unacceptable interference with humanitarian operations.
Lowcock appealed for funding of the UN response plan for Yemen as the world organization has to expand its operations.
Next year, the United Nations needs to feed 12 million people every month. That is a 50 percent increase from today, he said. In addition, the United Nations has programs to fight cholera and water-borne diseases. To ensure all the food, medicine, household items and other supplies — as well as the aid workers — reach their destinations quickly and safely, the logistics program must also be financed to expand significantly.
The 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen needs 4 billion dollars. About half of that is for emergency food assistance, he said.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE recently pledged to provide another 500 million dollars for humanitarian aid in Yemen. This is on top of their joint contribution of 930 million dollars to the UN appeal this year. The UN secretary-general will convene a high-level pledging conference for Yemen in Geneva in February. Lowcock expressed the hope that the generous donations of Saudi Arabia and the UAE would jump-start contributions from other countries.
Lowcock emphasized that all the elements — cease-fire, access, the economy, funding, and the political process — should be treated as a package, not a menu. “We need more action on all of them.”
Yemen has been in civil war in the past three-plus years, pitting Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Saudi Arabia leads a military coalition to support the Hadi government.