Yemen’s economy is collapsing, its humanitarian crisis is worsening, and the conflict in the Arab world’s poorest nation is growing more violent, the United Nations’ deputy humanitarian chief has said.
The grim remarks by Assistant Secretary-General Ramesh Rajasingham came during a briefing to the UN Security Council on Thursday. More than 20 million Yemenis – two-thirds of the population – need humanitarian assistance, but aid agencies, he said, “are, once again, starting to run out of money”.
Aid agencies are now helping nearly 13 million people across the country, about 3 million more than just a few months ago, Rajasingham added. “Our best assessment is that this expansion has considerably pushed back the immediate risk of large-scale famine.”
But he warned that aid agencies don’t have enough money to keep going at this scale and “in the coming weeks and months, up to 4 million people could see their food aid reduced” and “by the end of the year, that number could rise to 5 million people”.
“We are calling on everyone to do everything possible to sustain the momentum we’ve built over the last several months and keep famine at bay,” Rajasingham said.
Yemen has been convulsed by civil war since 2014 when Iran-backed Houthi rebels took control of the capital of Sanaa and much of the northern part of the country, forcing the internationally recognised government to flee to the south, then to Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015, backed by the United States, in an effort to restore President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power and threw its support behind his government.
Despite a relentless air campaign and ground fighting, the war has deteriorated largely into a deadlock and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The US has since suspended its direct involvement in the conflict.
In early 2020, the Houthis launched an offensive in the mostly government-held Marib province that has cost the lives of thousands of young people and left thousands of displaced civilians living in constant fear of violence and having to move again.
On Thursday, tribal leaders and Yemeni officials said that fighting over Marib in the last 24 hours killed at least 140 fighters on both sides. The clashes were taking place in the districts of Abdiya and al-Jubah, they said.
At the briefing to the Security Council, Rajasingham said the Houthis “intensified their brutal offensive in Marib, taking more territory there and in neighbouring parts of the southern province of Shabwa”.
He also pointed to clashes between rival armed groups earlier this month in the southern city of Aden – where Hadi’s government set up headquarters after the Houthis pushed them out of Sanaa and the north – and continued fighting, shelling and airstrikes in northwest Saada and western Hajjah and Hodeida provinces.
In September, 235 civilians were killed or injured, the second-highest figure in two years, and fighting in Marib is taking “a particularly heavy civilian toll”, with almost 10,000 people displaced in September, the second-highest figure in two years, Rajasingham said.
The new UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, who took up the post last month, told the council that he has held meetings with government and Houthi officials, as well as key regional and international officials focused on how to move towards a political solution to restore peace in Yemen.
“The gap in trust between warring parties is wide and growing,” he said in a virtual briefing. Grundberg said he made clear that while progress should be made on urgent humanitarian and economic issues, urgent political talks without preconditions are essential to negotiate a settlement of the conflict.
“Let us not fool ourselves, this will be a laborious and complicated task that will take time but it must take place,” Grundberg said. “The past weeks have illustrated the tension between the pace of the war and the economic collapse on one hand, and the time needed to devise and consult on a feasible way forward, on the other.”
Rajasingham reiterated that Yemen’s economic collapse “is driving most needs in the country – including the risk of famine”.
Yemen imports almost everything, he said, and the Yemeni rial is trading around 1,270 rials to the dollar in Aden, nearly six times higher than before the war, and fewer goods are reaching the country’s ports. Commercial food imports to the key ports of Hodeida and Saleef were eight percent less than last year’s average in September, and “fuel imports were an alarming 64 percent lower,” he said.
He urged immediate steps to stem the country’s economic collapse, including injections of foreign exchange through the Central Bank which would quickly bring down prices, as they have done in the past, as well as fully opening all ports, lifting import restrictions at Hodeida and Saleef, and paying civil servant salaries.