Yemeni men unload medical aid at a hospital warehouse in the war-torn country's second city of Aden, in early May
Riyadh (AFP) - The UN on Tuesday raised only around half the required $2.41 billion in humanitarian aid for Yemen, ravaged by war and coronavirus, at a donor conference co-hosted by Saudi Arabia in the sixth year of its military intervention.
Some $1.35 billion were raised at the emergency virtual conference, which came as aid groups warned the virus could wreak havoc in Yemen after years of conflict and amid crippling funding shortages.
"We are in a race against time," United Nations Secretary General Guterres said in his opening speech.
"Aid agencies estimate they will need up to $2.41 billion to cover essential aid from June until December, including programmes to counter COVID-19."
Without the required funding, more than 30 out of 41 major UN programmes in Yemen could close in the next few weeks, Guterres warned, calling for "urgent action".
But the pledging event fell short of its objective, raising just $1.35 billion from 30 donor countries.
The amount is about half the $2.6 billion raised at last year's UN pledging conference for Yemen in Geneva.
"We welcome the pledges made today, but this still falls far short of what is needed to alleviate the suffering," said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
"Millions of Yemeni people are staring down the double barrel of starvation and a global pandemic."
Yemen is already gripped by what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands killed, an estimated four million people displaced by war and tens of thousands afflicted by malnutrition and disease.
Now, as the coronavirus spreads, some 5.5 million people risk losing access to food and clean water in Yemen this year, according to a survey by 24 international aid groups, including Save the Children.
Guterres said in the de facto capital Aden, reports indicated the mortality rates from COVID-19 were "among the highest in the world".
Mark Lowcock, UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said $180 million of the required funding was needed to combat the fast-spreading virus.
Saudi Arabia, a key player in the conflict, emerged as the biggest donor at the event, pledging an aid package worth $500 million.
Britain, a leading arms supplier to Saudi Arabia, stepped in with a new aid package for Yemen worth £160 million ($200 million).
The United States, another weapons provider to the kingdom, said it would offer $225 million, while Germany announced 125 million euros ($139.8 million) in assistance to Yemen.
The United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally and another key player in Yemen's conflict, pledged no funding at the conference.
- 'Fiscal cliff' -
Saudi Arabia, which leads a military intervention against Iran-backed Huthi rebels, has contributed billions of dollars in aid to Yemen in recent years.
But the Saudi-led coalition is also widely blamed for civilian casualties in bombing raids that campaigners say have pushed the country deeper into crisis.
A rebel spokesman dismissed the Saudi-led conference as a "silly attempt to (gloss over) their crimes", according to the Huthi-run Al-Masirah television.
"Saudi Arabia keeps trying to whitewash its coalition's role in the deepening humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, but co-hosting the funding event won't fool anyone," said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"The Saudi-led coalition, along with Huthi forces that have brutalized civilians and obstructed aid, should immediately... put an end to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen for which they're all responsible."
Jens Laerke, from the UN's humanitarian agency OCHA, has warned that aid agencies are heading towards a "fiscal cliff" due to a lack of funding that threatens key UN programmes.
- Virus 'catastrophe' warning -
Top officials from other UN agencies in Yemen have also appealed for urgent international support.
International medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has warned that Yemen faces a "catastrophe" from the pandemic.
The UN says COVID-19 has likely already spread throughout most of Yemen, while the Yemeni government has officially recorded only a few hundred cases.
"Yemen needs a lot of help, not least because of its weak health system," said Abdullah al-Rabeeah, supervisor general of Saudi Arabia's King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre.
The conflict between Yemeni government forces and the Huthis escalated in March 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition intervened against the rebels after they overran much of the country.
Further muddying the waters are tensions between two anti-Huthi allies -- the Yemeni government and southern separatists, which declared self-rule in southern Yemen on April 26.