Yemen ‘on edge of precipice’ as UNICEF launches aid appeal

YEMEN (AP) – Yemen is “on the edge of a precipice” after years of civil war, a senior UN official warned on Monday, with millions of children suffering from malnutrition and facing the risk of famine.

Ted Chaiban sounded the alarm about the worsening humanitarian situation as the United Nations Children’s Fund launched an appeal for a record USD2.5 billion in emergency funds from global donors.

As UNICEF’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, Chaiban oversees an effort to assist children and families in a region hit hard by conflict, natural disaster and the coronavirus crisis. With some 39 million children in need of assistance, the Middle East alone accounts for 40 per cent of the agency’s USD6 billion global appeal.

“The largest humanitarian emergencies in the world are in this region,” Chaiban said in an interview with The Associated Press. He spoke from Amman, Jordan.

The region includes some of the world’s most pressing humanitarian disasters – from Yemen, where years of conflict have left it on the brink of famine, to Sudan, which is coping with floods and an influx of refugees from Ethiopia as it emerges from years of civil strife. Lebanon, meanwhile, is dealing with political paralysis, an unprecedented economic crisis and a large population of Palestinian and Syrian refugees as it tries to recover from a massive blast in its capital of Beirut in August. Syria continues to struggle with a civil war, now in its 10th year, which has displaced millions of people internally and scattered millions more as refugees.

Yemen, which plunged into chaos and civil war after Houthi rebels captured the capital in 2014, may be the most challenging area for UNICEF. The agency estimates that virtually all of Yemen’s 12 million children require some sort of assistance. This can include food aid, health services, clean water, schooling and cash grants to help the poorest families scrape by.

A malnourished newborn baby lies in an incubator at Al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen. PHOTO: AP

“We are raising the alarm because we are on the edge of a precipice in Yemen,” Chaiban said, with some two million children “acutely malnourished” and five million people on the brink of famine.

He said efforts by the UN and non-governmental organizations are keeping the country afloat.

“If that falls apart, then it all falls apart,” he warned. “There’s a train coming down the track. You know what the consequences of not acting is.”

Education is the biggest component of the appeal, at USD874 million, or more than a third of all spending. Chaiban said the already challenging task of educating children in war and disaster zones has become even more difficult due to the coronavirus. He estimated that 40 per cent of the students UNICEF serves do not have sufficient access to internet or computers to allow remote learning.

UNICEF has been working with governments and telecom companies and other partners to find “blended” solutions that include some in-person learning, putting content online and giving children increased access to technology. Adding to the challenges is the coronavirus pandemic, which has stretched overwhelmed national health care systems and strained education systems.

Roughly USD500 million, or one-fifth of the total appeal, is aimed at helping the region’s countries cope with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. Much of that money will be spent to ensure that children can continue to study. Supporting health and clean-water programmes are also critical.

Chaiban said UNICEF is working closely with Covax, an ambitious global project to procure and safely deliver vaccines to the world’s poorest people. The agency is promoting educational campaigns so people understand the vaccination process for themselves and their children.

He said that one of the region’s few bright spots is Sudan, which is emerging from years of internal conflict and is attempting to transition to democracy.

The country still faces great challenges, from floods to the arrival of over 40,000 Ethiopian refugees to lingering hostilities. But Chaiban described Sudan as a “place of hope” and said the world should invest in its health and education systems and promote reconciliation there.

“We really have an opportunity to move beyond what has been the traditional narrative in Sudan,” he said. “These kinds of opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa … do not happen very often.”

Last year, UNICEF appealed for some USD2 billion in emergency assistance for the Mideast but only was able to raise about half of that. It runs operations in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.