Yemen’s food crisis 10 times worse than South Sudan, says UN

Humanitarian aid co-ordinator Mark Lowcock says that the situation has dramatically worsened

FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2018, file, photo. Mark Lowcock, the U.N. Humanitarian Affairs Emergency and Relief Coordinator, address United Nations Security Council with a report on Yemen at U.N. headquarters. The United Nations humanitarian aid chief said on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 he doesn’t expect an “easy or rapid process” in peace talks involving warring sides in Yemen, which faces the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

The UN’s humanitarian aid chief on Monday said the food crisis in Yemen was unprecedented and 10 times worse than anything seen in South Sudan, announcing an appeal for US$4 billion (Dh14.69bn) that will be needed to fund next year’s relief effort.

Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs who was briefing reporters about his recent trip to Yemen, said a desperate situation there underlined the need for progress at peace talks between the country’s government and Houthi rebels, currently taking place in Sweden.

Describing the lack of food for civilians as an "atrocious crisis", he said the past year had seen a 45 per cent rise in the number of Yemenis suffering from hunger and that there was consensus among people that he had spoken to from all sides of the conflict.


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"They've all got one message and their message is that they're at the end of their tether and they want this war to stop," said Mr Lowcock of his visit to the war-torn country.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host an international pledging conference on Yemen to take place in Geneva on February 26, together with the governments of Switzerland and Sweden, Mr Lowcock said.

The $4bn appeal for 2019 is up from $3bn this year and $2bn the year before.

“The big picture is straightforward and easy to understand. There are 20 million hungry people in Yemen, 70 per cent of the population,” said Mr Lowcock. “In 152 of the country’s 333 districts, there is an emergency. Large numbers have moved into a worse category. “

Worst affected of all are 250,000 Yemeni civilians that he classed as being at phase-five “catastrophe” level, when it comes to food poverty.

"We have never before documented people in phase five in the food crisis in Yemen," he said, noting that all such citizens were concentrated in four districts where the war is raging, including Red Sea port city Hodeidah.

“There is only one other country in the world where there is anyone in phase five, and that is South Sudan, where there are 25,000.”

The UN data was gathered from 330 of Yemen’s 333 districts.

Peace talks taking place in Swedish town Rimbo are the first direct UN-backed negotiations between the Houthis and Yemen's internationally recognising government since a civil war began in 2015. That effort, being led by UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, is seen as a first step to ending the war. Access to the port of Hodeidah, controlled by the Houthis, is seen as a stumbling block.

“The situation is not under control. It’s not the case that things are getting better. The first thing we have to do is stop them getting worse and then we have to work on them getting better,” Mr Lowcock said of humanitarian issues on the ground and the need for progress on peace.

“Hodeidah is a lifeline. It’s not the only port. We want all ports and all the seaports to be open, but the vast majority of the people in Yemen are in Houthi-controlled areas and Hodeidah is the way you get food in to those people without having to cross front lines. Crossing front lines is extremely difficult in a hot war, and this is a hot war.”

Mr Lowcock said a $500 million pledge made by Saudi Arabia and the UAE last month would be included in the $4bn figure earmarked in the 2019 UN appeal for Yemen.

“The collapse of the economy means that more and more people need help,” Mr Lowcock added.

“That is why we need Martin [Griffiths]’s talks to succeed.”