WFP to halve food aid in Houthi Yemen as funding drops

DUBAI, April 9 (Reuters) - The World Food Programme said on Thursday it will halve the aid it gives to people in parts of Yemen controlled by the Houthi movement from mid-April after donors cut funding over concerns the Houthis are hindering aid deliveries.

The funding gap comes as Yemen is bracing for a potential outbreak of the novel coronavirus that would be devastating in a country where a five-year war between the Houthis and a Saudi-led coalition has wrecked the health system and spread hunger and disease.

“WFP’s operation in Yemen is now facing a critical funding shortage and is left with no choice but to reduce assistance by half to avoid a full stop of assistance in the future,” a WFP spokesperson told Reuters.

From mid-April families will get WFP aid every other month, instead of monthly. The United Nations WFP feeds more than 12 million Yemenis a month, 80% of them in areas controlled by the Houthis, who ousted the internationally recognised government from power in Sanaa in late 2014.

A nationwide ceasefire in response to the global coronavirus outbreak went into effect in Yemen on Thursday, raising hope for an end to the war.

“WFP calls on the de-facto authorities to honour agreements and to introduce the confidence measures needed for donations and full operations to resume,” the spokesperson said.

Donors, humanitarian agencies and U.N. bodies have in recent months increasingly complained of interference and obstruction from Houthi authorities and threatened to scale down aid if conditions did not improve.

Major donor the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) two weeks ago said it had started to reduce aid to Houthi areas over those concerns.

The Supreme Council for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a Houthi body formed in November to oversee aid, did not respond to a request for comment.

Other aid agencies joined together last month to negotiate with Houthi authorities to facilitate access and accountability, aid sources have told Reuters. They said some progress on certain issues has been seen in recent weeks to improve the operating environment, but challenges remain.

While some money for coronavirus specific projects is coming in -- including $26.9 million from the World Bank and $25 million from Saudi Arabia this week -- the wider funding problem persists.

The U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Lise Grande, told Reuters that 31 of the United Nation’s 41 major programmes in Yemen will be reduced or cut in April without more funding.

“The funding crisis is real, and will have an a catastrophic impact, just as COVID-19 is threatening the country. Nearly every aspect of the operation is at risk,” she said.

Yemen has been mired in conflict since the Iran-aligned Houthis ousted the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power in Sanaa in late 2014, prompting the coalition to intervene in March 2015 to restore him. The Houthis say they are fighting a corrupt system. (Writing by Lisa Barrington Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)