U.N. says disappointing $1.7 billion pledged for Yemen, impossible to avert famine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said a “disappointing” $1.7 billion had been pledged by countries on Monday for humanitarian aid in Yemen - less than half the $3.85 billion the world body was seeking for 2021 to avert a large-scale famine.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, February 26, 2021. Manuel Balce Ceneta/Pool via REUTERS

“For most people, life in Yemen is now unbearable. Childhood in Yemen is a special kind of hell. Yemeni children are starving,” Guterres said as he opened the pledging conference. After it concluded, he described the outcome as “disappointing” and warned in a statement: “Cutting aid is a death sentence.”

Some 16 million Yemenis - more than half the population of the Arabian Peninsula country - are going hungry, the United Nations says. Of those, 5 million are on the brink of famine, U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock has said.

“This does not solve the problem,” Lowcock said after the pledging conference. “It’s going to be impossible with such limited resources to prevent a large-scale famine.”

Among the commitments on Monday were Saudi Arabia with $430 million, the United States with $191 million, the United Arab Emirates with $230 million and Germany with $240 million.

In 2018 and 2019, the United Nations prevented famine due to a well-funded aid appeal. In 2020 the world body only received just over half the $3.4 billion it needed.

More than six years of war in Yemen - widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran - have sent the impoverished country spiraling into what the United Nations describes as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

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Some 80% of Yemenis need help, with 400,000 children under the age of 5 severely malnourished, according to U.N. data. For much of its food, the country relies on imports that have been badly disrupted over the years by all warring parties.

A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the Iran-allied Houthi group ousted the country’s government from Sanaa. The Houthis say they are fighting a corrupt system. The people’s suffering has been worsened by an economic and currency collapse, and by the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.N. officials are trying to revive peace talks, and new U.S. President Joe Biden has said Yemen is a priority, declaring a halt to American support for the Saudi-led military campaign and demanding the war “has to end.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday that Saudi Arabia and the government of Yemen are “committed and eager” to find a way to end the war in Yemen and called on the Houthi group to do the same.

Speaking after a visit to the region by his Yemen envoy Tim Lenderking, Blinken told the pledging conference: “He reports that the Saudis and the Republic of Yemen government are committed and eager to find a solution to the conflict.”

“We call on the Houthis to match this commitment. A necessary first step is to stop their offensive against Marib,” he said.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis