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USG Op-ed: A massive famine is creeping into Yemen, we need to stop it devouring a generation

01 Mar 2021

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An internally displaced family in Dar Saad District in Yemen (2018). © Giles Clarke for OCHA

The following op-ed, written by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock; the Vice President and Head of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Switzerland, Ignazio Cassis; the Minister for Foreign Affairs in Sweden, Ann Linde; and the Minister for International Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Affairs in Sweden, Per Olsson Fridh was published online today by The Guardian:

In November the United Nations issued a warning that Yemen was in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.

As the country faces its darkest hour, the efforts to bring peace to the country are more urgent than ever. But there are some signs of hope.

There is no doubt that the enhanced diplomatic engagement by the US is giving new momentum to the UN-led political efforts. If this momentum is sustained, it could create the best chance yet to save lives, stave off a mass famine, and forge a path to peace.

The only question is whether the world seizes the opportunity. Many people have a role to play in this. But what the international donor community does now will be crucial.

It is impossible to overstate the horror of daily life in Yemen. Two in three people rely on aid to survive. Nearly 50,000 Yemenis are already living in famine-like conditions. The war has decimated the economy and crushed public services. Life in Yemen for the average person has become unbearable, and children suffer the most.

Children are starving. This year, nearly half of all under-fives are set to suffer from acute malnutrition. This includes 400,000 facing severe acute malnutrition. Many will die without urgent treatment, and those who survive will suffer from the largely irreversible damage caused by the condition.

Preventable diseases like cholera, diphtheria and measles cause the needless death of at least one child every 10 minutes in Yemen. Sick children are turned away by health facilities that do not have medicines or supplies. And every day, Yemeni children are killed or maimed in the conflict.

The only long-term solution to Yemen’s problems is to find an end to the war, and a path towards peace, which is guided by the aspirations of Yemenis.

But a political and diplomatic effort will only stand a chance if it is underpinned by a stable humanitarian situation.

As the path to peace is forged, we must help rebuild the country, and the public systems, strengthen national capacity, stabilise the economy and – most urgently – feed the children who are wasting away because they are starving.

We have hardly witnessed a clearer case for scaling up humanitarian relief in decades. But last year funding to Yemen dropped dramatically.

In 2020, the UN-led humanitarian operation received $1.9 billion – half of what was needed and half of what was received the year before.

The impact of the funding reduction was brutal. Aid had to be cut, and many people who needed help did not get it. Donors need to return to at least the same level of funding as in 2019.

With famine already creeping in, we need to quickly ramp up the aid operation if we want to stop it devouring a whole generation.

On 1 March, the UN, Sweden and Switzerland will convene a high-level pledging event for donors to pledge their support for the people of Yemen. The UN humanitarian response needs $4 billion this year.

That is what it takes to hold back a massive famine and address other acute needs. If the UN receives this funding, it will be able to help 16 million people across Yemen with the basics they need to survive.

We can achieve this if donors commit to returning to the much higher funding levels of 2019 – at the very minimum.

Anything less is not enough. Anything less would squander this opportunity to stave off mass famine and take a meaningful step towards peace.

Every extra dollar the UN and partners receive for the aid operation is a step in the right direction and the sooner it arrives the better. We need to turn promises into food and medical supplies as quickly as possible because time is not on our side.

This is not the moment to step back from Yemen. No one in Yemen deserves to die because they cannot get enough to eat.

More money for the aid operation is the fastest, most efficient way to prevent a famine. It will also help create the conditions for lasting peace.

2020 was hard for everyone, but it hit some much harder than others. The people of Yemen desperately need help right now. So let’s stand by them.