New York, 24 June 2020
Thank you very much,
COVID-19 is spreading rapidly across Yemen. About 25 per cent of Yemenis confirmed to have the disease have died. That’s five times the global average.
With the health system in collapse, we know many cases and deaths are going unrecorded. Burial prices in some areas have increased by seven times compared to a few months ago.
COVID-19 is adding one more layer of misery upon many others. As the Prime Minister of Yemen said earlier in the month, a macabre humanitarian tragedy is imminent.
I will brief you today on five priority issues: protection of civilians, humanitarian access, funding, the economy and progress towards peace.
First, protection of civilians – a requirement under international humanitarian law.
In May, an average of five civilians were killed or injured every day. One in three of them was a child. Two-thirds of incidents that harmed civilians occurred in family homes or farms, and five incidents struck health facilities.
We also continue to see appalling multiple-casualty incidents. On 15 June, strikes hit a car in a rural area of Sa’ada, killing at least 13 civilians – including four children.
My second point is about humanitarian access. Again, a requirement of international humanitarian law.
Safe transport for aid workers into and out of Yemen is a core component of humanitarian access. Air passenger service to Aden resumed several weeks ago on a reduced schedule, but the first inbound staff flight to Sana’a did not land until 15 June. Incoming staff are self-quarantining for 14 days.
The first flight to Sana’a was several days late. Ansar Allah officials had cancelled it just before take-off, fortunately this decision was reversed the next day. A second flight arrived on 20 June.
We are seeking a standing permit for aircraft to land and a reliable schedule that will allow regular staff rotations.
Aid agencies are also working with donors and the Ansar Allah authorities to build on the concrete progress we’ve seen recently in the humanitarian operating environment. A lot more is needed on this. As I said at the pledging conference earlier in June, and we are determined to continue working on this as needed. This issue is the focus of regular, detailed discussions between donors and agencies. Northern Yemen has become among the most closely scrutinized humanitarian operating environments in the world. And on balance, the environment is improving.
In the south, we have seen an increase in ad hoc restrictions, including interference and unnecessary delays in assistance. There have also been serious security incidents affecting humanitarian staff. Escalating conflict in Abyan has restricted movements several times. We are still largely able to resolve these problems as they arise, but the overall trend remains a big concern.
We are no closer to accessing the SAFER oil tanker, which I have briefed you on more than I remember, and which continues to threaten a devastating oil spill off the coast of Hudaydah. Together with the Special Envoy’s office, we still actively seek Ansar Allah authorities’ agreement to a UN-led technical mission so we could assess the situation and carry out initial repairs on the tanker. The assessment will determine the appropriate next steps, which may include the extraction safely of the oil. Given the immense risks, it is imperative that Ansar Allah authorities give us the official green light to proceed without further delay or preconditions.
My third point is about funding for the aid operation.
On 2 June, as I mentioned earlier, the United Nations and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia co-hosted a virtual pledging event for Yemen. Thirty-one donors pledged $1.35 billion for humanitarian aid, including about $700 million in new funds.
That’s only about half of what was pledged last year. It is also far below what we need to keep programmes going. Reduced pledges from the Gulf region account for essentially all of the reduction.
What is the impact of that? Incentive payments for health workers who are not being paid have already ceased for 10,000 of them. Those people are working on the front lines responding to COVID-19. Water and sanitation programmes that serve 4 million people will start closing in several weeks. About 5 million children will go without routine vaccinations, and by August, we will close down malnutrition programmes. The wider health programme, which 19 million people that benefit from will stop too.
Many of the pledges that were made have still not been paid. We see no reasonable cause to further delay disbursement of pledges. As I told the conference, promises don’t save lives. It is only when you implement what you promised, you save a child.
My fourth point is about Yemen’s economy, which is heading for an unprecedented calamity.
No commercial fuel vessels have entered Hudaydah since 8 June due to a political dispute over revenue management which Martin alluded to. Fuel is essential to pump water, power sanitation networks and keep heath centres running. So the parties must urgently work with Martin’s team to find a sustainable solution.
Larger economic problems are also brewing. The Yemeni rial is again depreciating rapidly, trading at around 620 rial to the dollar in the north and 750 rial in the south. With nearly all goods imported, this means more Yemenis are being squeezed out of markets, unable to buy food or other life-saving requirements.
In late 2018, the rial bottomed out at about 800 to the dollar. At the time, experts warned that the uncontrolled depreciation was pushing Yemen to the edge of large-scale famine. Today, experts are saying the rate could hit 1,000 rial per dollar by the end of the year.
In 2018, when we sought this problem, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia deposited $2.2 billion in Yemen’s Central Bank. That allowed the Government to stabilize the currency and guarantee favourable exchange rates to commercial importers. That helped reign in prices of food and other essential goods.
But those funds are nearly depleted, and no one has stepped forward to fill the gap. Yemeni traders are now purchasing hard currency at much higher, unofficial rates. As a result, food prices have risen by 10 to 20 per cent in some areas just in the last two weeks. Without new hard currency injections, this will only get worse.
And as the rial again collapses, remittances from Yemenis working abroad are also drying up. These payments have been the largest source of foreign exchange in the country for several years. They provided a lifeline for millions of people. But the COVID-19 global downturn – particularly in Saudi Arabia, where most Yemeni expatriate workers live – is closing off that support. The best available data indicate remittances may have already fallen between 50 and 70 per cent.
We have never before seen in Yemen a situation where such a severe acute domestic economic crisis overlaps with a sharp drop in remittances and major cuts to donor support for humanitarian aid – and this of course is all happening in the middle of a devastating pandemic.
At a minimum, we can expect many more people to starve to death and to succumb to COVID-19 and to die of cholera and to watch their children die because they are not immunized for killer diseases. So I call urgently on all Yemen’s donors to provide predictable foreign exchange injections to avoid total economic collapse. This must be in addition to humanitarian funding, which I again urge donors to disburse immediately and to consider increasing.
Humanitarian agencies can still, with adequate funding, keep the humanitarian situation stable. That’s what we all want to do. That will also help with the political process.
So, my last point, there is a stark choice before the world today: support the humanitarian response in Yemen and help to create the space for a sustainable political solution.
Or watch Yemen fall off the cliff.
Thank you very much.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.