The “distressing” situation in Yemen is a result of choices made by “powerful countries and powerful people”, according to a UN official.
Sir Mark Lowcock told Sky News “choices have been made to abandon these people”.
He added that deciding not to fund the relief operation has been “one of the worst choices” made this year.
The country has been devastated by a conflict between Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s administration and the Houthi armed movement since 2014 – both claim to form the official government.
Mr Hadi’s government is supported by powerful countries, headed by Saudi Arabia, but also backed by the US, Britain and the United Arab Emirates.
The crisis has worsened due to coronavirus, with the UN saying more than 20 million people require urgent humanitarian assistance because of the ongoing conflict – almost half of them children.
The UK government has said that famine in Yemen “has never looked more likely”.
The UN under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator said the situation in Yemen is “very distressing and upsetting”, and one which is “very important” for the world to see.
In the past, relief efforts have helped avoid suffering and death. However, without these in place Sir Lowcock said “half the people we were reaching, we’re barely able to give any food to anymore”.
This has also led to the closure of clinics and water stations.
He said countries in the Gulf typically pledge a lot of money but “have not pledged as much this year and have paid almost nothing”, adding that “every country actually needs to step up to do more”.
Last year, Saudi Arabia gave $750m to the appeal – this year they pledged $500m, before decreasing the amount to $300m.
Sir Lowcock said even this amount isn’t “going to be enough, it’s not going to turn the corner, it’s not going to save all of those millions of children”, adding that the relief operation needs to get back to where it was in 2019.
David Milliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, emphasised this is not a tragedy, telling Sky News: “This is a crisis of diplomacy because there’s a war going on. It’s a crisis of politics because the UN is stuck unable to bring the waring parties to heel.
“It’s a crisis of the humanitarian system too because only 30% of the UN appeal is funded.”
He added: “The threat of famine and the reality of malnutrition is daily life in Yemen today and it is preventable, and that’s what makes this an absolute scandal. We need the governments of the world to fulfil their responsibilities.”
Commenting on the crisis, Sir Lowcock added that what has been seen so far is “just the tip of the iceberg” as those unable to get to the hospital are in a much worse situation.
He said: “They’re in a tiny shelter covered by a piece of plastic with no food, no water, no power.
“They have nothing except the care and the support of their families as they breathe their last.”
Sir Lowcock spoke about how “heartbreaking” the closure of the “life saving” programmes has been, but highlighted that the UN can “only keep them going if people pay for them” due to its reliance on voluntary contributions.
Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said the UK would provide a further £5.8m in UK aid to help avoid famine in the country.
The UK support is said to be able to help at least 500,000 vulnerable people each month with buying food and household essentials, including soap and medicine.
Speaking in New York at a meeting of permanent UN Security Council members, Mr Raab said: “The humanitarian situation in Yemen is now the worst it has ever been, and compounded with the threat of coronavirus, the country has never looked more likely to slide into famine.
“Unless donors urgently act now and follow through on their pledges, hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of dying simply from starvation.”
He also called for “unwavering support” for plans to secure a ceasefire that ends the suffering.
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