The coronavirus scourge is a prevailing theme at this year’s United Nations General Assembly, forcing the gathering to be conducted largely online. But the pandemic is also fueling another crisis preoccupying the organization and humanitarian groups: the strong prospect of famine in some of the world’s most destitute places.
Nowhere is famine more likely than in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, ravaged by war for nearly six years between the Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led military coalition defending a weak government that exerts little or no control over most Yemeni territory.
A Yemen famine was averted in 2018, helped partly by an infusion of emergency aid and pressure on the Saudis to ease a blockade. But the war has since widened, and U.N. officials say access to many areas, particularly in the Houthi-controlled north, is blocked.
Combined with donor fatigue, a collapse in the value of Yemen’s currency, a fuel shortage and the coronavirus, which may be spreading unchecked in the country, famine is again “definitely knocking on the door — it’s looming,” said David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, the anti-hunger arm of the United Nations.
In an interview, Mr. Beasley said he needed $500 million in the next six months, just to provide food to Yemenis at half the usual ration rate. Moreover, he said, “even if we get the money, we still may have famine” because of delays and obstacles to delivery.
Roughly 80 percent of the country’s 30 million people require food aid, yet the United Nations is in the position of having to cut assistance when it is needed more than ever.
“Yemen is absolutely without a doubt our greatest problem area in the world,” Mr. Beasley said. “What’s happening is deplorable, disgraceful.”
Houthi leaders have balked, Mr. Beasley said, at his agency’s insistence of assurances that its food aid is reaching the intended recipients and not diverted or sold for profit. Those assurances include a biometrics identification system, which Mr. Beasley said the Houthis had not allowed despite their earlier commitment.
Mr. Beasley and other top aid officials emphasized their alarm on Wednesday at a special General Assembly session focused on Yemen and food insecurity. Aaron Brent, the Yemen country director for the international anti-poverty group CARE, said the meeting “confirmed what we as humanitarians already knew — that the situation in Yemen is significantly and visibly worsening.”
Stéphane Dujarric, the chief U.N. spokesman, said at his daily briefing on Thursday that nearly half of all Yemeni children suffer stunted growth because of malnutrition, 15 of the United Nations’ 41 major programs in Yemen have been reduced or shut down, and 30 more will close or cut services in the coming weeks without more funding.
The president of Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, used his prerecorded address to the General Assembly on Thursday to appeal to the Houthi rebels to allow the United Nations to distribute more aid. Mr. Hadi delivered the speech from Saudi Arabia, where he has basically lived in exile since the Houthis expelled his government from the capital, Sana, more than five years ago.
While the Houthis are not the only antagonists in the conflict who are impeding the delivery of aid, they are increasingly seen as a problem by humanitarian groups. A report by Human Rights Watch last week accused the Houthis of having deliberately obstructed shipments of emergency health equipment and other goods as bargaining leverage.
The Houthis also have prevented a U.N. team from assessing risks posed by the Safer, an abandoned fuel tanker near the port of Hudaydah that threatens to spill four times the amount of oil leaked by the Exxon Valdez.
While the Saudis have been a leading contributor to Yemen humanitarian relief, they also are a primary antagonist in the war, seeing the Houthis as proxies for their regional adversary, Iran. Saudi bombings in Yemen have been a major cause of deaths and destruction.
A report released Thursday by the Norwegian Refugee Council, a leading humanitarian group, said Yemeni farms had been hit more than 900 times by airstrikes and shelling in less than three years. Jan Egeland, secretary general of the council and a former top U.N. humanitarian relief official, called the attacks part of “the senseless war” that has shattered Yemen’s ability to feed itself.
“Yemenis aren’t falling into starvation,” Mr. Egeland said on Twitter. “They are being pushed into the abyss by men with guns and power.”
Yemen is not the only country imperiled by possible famine. Mark Lowcock, the top relief official at the United Nations, warned this month that famine is looming in parts of South Sudan, northern Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Under a five-scale monitoring system used by humanitarian groups for assessing hunger emergencies, Phase 3 is a crisis, Phase 4 is an emergency and Phase 5 is famine — marked by “starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels.”
At least 16 districts in Yemen controlled by the Houthis are believed to be in Phase 4 — one step away from famine.
Mr. Beasley said he could not assess when Phase 5 might be reached. But, he said, “if you see there’s a famine, it’s too late — we’ve got to get ahead of it.”