Editor’s Note: Mark Lowcock is the United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator. He traveled to Yemen from November 28 to December 1. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Traveling last week in Yemen, even a 30-year veteran of humanitarian crises like me could not fail to be shocked. Millions of people’s lives are at risk. But it’s not too late to save Yemen. Missing the opportunity to do so would be a huge moral failure.
Four years ago, Yemen was a fragile country where millions of people struggled to make ends meet. Many were reliant on external help. But there was a functioning economy, infrastructure stretched across the country and people received basic services from their government. All of this has been destroyed and brought Yemen to the brink.
The war has decimated the economy. National income is half of what it was at the start of the war. Attacks on fishing vessels, destruction of farm land and the bombing of factories have destroyed production. The United Nations and its partners in Yemen have estimated that more than 600,000 jobs have been lost. The main source of government income, oil revenues, are down 85%. More than a million teachers, health workers and pensioners have barely been paid for years. Millions of families do not have the money they need to buy enough food to survive.
Air strikes and ground fighting, including artillery fire, have killed or injured tens of thousands of civilians and displaced well over 3 million more. Before the war, Yemen imported almost all its food, fuel and medicines. There are more than 30 active front lines across the country. Restrictions imposed by belligerents are choking ports, roads and the essential infrastructure through which aid reaches people.
The UN World Food Programme, whose head, David Beasley, visited Yemen a few days before me, now estimates that almost 12 million people are on the verge of starvation.
Famines are rare in the modern world. The recent cases, like Somalia in 2011, were all exacerbated by drought, and the return of rains provided respite. Yemen’s crisis is entirely man-made. It will not be solved by Mother Nature. But we can stave off the looming apocalypse if we take action now. Here is the UN’s five-point plan.
First, we need an immediate ceasefire to protect people but also the essential infrastructure without which a great famine is guaranteed. Ground the war planes and silence the guns. The UN and others have been calling for this for years. Those calls must now be heeded.
For some of the most contested areas, like the port of Hodeidah – the lifeline for millions of people – the UN has offered to play a stronger role to help ensure that key facilities will be used solely for legitimate civilian activities.
Second, the UN’s humanitarian response plan for 2019 has to be fully funded. Right now, UN agencies and the NGOs we work with, staffed by thousands of professional and dedicated people, most of them Yemenis helping other Yemenis, are supporting 8 million people every month with assistance such as food, access to clean water and medical care.
Next year, we aim to reach 15 million people – half the total population – including all those who have no other means of support and who cannot survive without our help. We need $4 billion during 2019. That might sound like a lot. But it amounts to sustaining the life of a starving person for about 50 cents a day. Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, will convene a high-level conference in Geneva on February 26, seeking confirmation of financial pledges from donors.
Third, urgent and ongoing measures are needed to stabilize the economy. The most immediate way to do that is to provide foreign funds through the Central Bank of Yemen to allow the payment of salaries for teachers, health workers and other public servants and to pay pensions. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have taken important steps over the last two months to facilitate this.
But what is needed is a predictable, consistent and continuing monthly injection of resources – and the cooperation of all the parties in Yemen to allow the money to reach those who need it.
Fourth, work needs to start now on recovery and rebuilding, including for the key state institutions. Rebuild roads and bridges and the water systems. Replace the damaged cranes at Hodeidah. Patch up classrooms. Get the fishermen back to sea. Help farmers to plant. Invest to provide electricity to more people.
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And fifth, the parties attending the talks set to begin in Sweden – convened by Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen – need to stay until they have agreed to the first meaningful actions towards peace.
Rebuilding the battered economy and creating jobs and livelihoods to a point where Yemen can sustain itself will be the work of decades. But piecing back together Yemen’s fractured society and overcoming the anger and grievances the war has amplified will take generations. None of this is going to get better until it stops getting worse. Better get on with it before it is too late.