DUBAI (Reuters) – The world’s biggest humanitarian aid operation will be scaled-down next month in Houthi-controlled Yemen, because donors and aid workers say they can no longer ensure that food for millions of people is reaching those who need it.
Aid agency sources told Reuters Houthi authorities in northern Yemen were obstructing efforts to get food and other help to those in need, to an extent that is no longer tolerable.
“The operating environment in north Yemen has deteriorated so dramatically in recent months that humanitarians can no longer manage the risks associated with delivering assistance at the volume we currently are,” a senior UN official said.
Unless things improve, humanitarians and donors will have “no choice” but to reduce assistance, the official said. This would include curtailing some food aid overseen by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), which feeds more than 12 million Yemenis a month, 80% of them in Houthi areas.
The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis and says millions of people are on the verge of starvation. There is little precedent for a such a large aid program being scaled-back in this way, which the sources called a sign of the seriousness of the concerns.
The Supreme Council for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (SCMCHA), a Houthi body formed in November to oversee aid, did not respond to a request for comment.
Aid agencies have for the past year publicly and privately complained of worsening operating conditions, lack of travel permits and other access restrictions which have left workers in northern Yemen “exasperated”, in the words of one agency employee, and unable to deliver to full capacity.
“At high levels this has left the agencies, NGOs and donors asking: can we continue like this or do fundamental changes need to be made?” said another source familiar with discussions between donors and aid distributors.
Donors, U.N. agencies and charities have not publicly announced aid reductions. Two sources told Reuters cutbacks could begin at the start of March after consultation with donors this month. Two said they could begin sooner.
Yemen has been mired in conflict since the Iran-aligned Houthis ousted the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi from the capital Sanaa in late 2014. A Saudi-led military coalition has fought to restore Hadi.
“No one wants to walk away from a crisis, certainly not a crisis as big as the one in Yemen, but humanitarians have to adjust what we are doing based on the risks we are facing,” the U.N. official said.
Another source said discussions were ongoing about the extent of any suspension: “Any talk of suspension needs to be carefully considered before a decision is made.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a major donor, said the United States was “extremely concerned by Houthi officials’ interference in aid operations”. Washington is working with donors, the United Nations and charities “to communicate unequivocally to Houthi officials to cease their obstructive behavior” so aid can continue, a spokesperson said.
One of the reasons for the suspension is a dispute over a biometric system designed to record who receives aid. The WFP partially suspended food aid delivery for two months in Sanaa in June in a dispute over control of the biometric data. Eight months on, the system is still not operational in Houthi areas.
A Houthi official told Reuters WFP’s demand to control the data violates Yemeni law, and the group had proposed alternative systems for aid distribution.
U.N. documents seen by Reuters show that agencies have repeatedly asked Houthi officials over the past year to allow access and deliveries. Aid workers complain that they have been prevented not only from delivering food, but also from treating it in storage to prevent it from spoiling during delays.
In one case in the poor Hajjah district, around 2,000 tonnes of food that should have been distributed early last year is now scheduled for destruction. Permission was not granted to either distribute or treat it.
“We have seen a disturbing trend that when we inform [Houthi authorities] of the need to remove any infested stocks from the distribution centers, they arrange for media to accompany them and portray it as if WFP is distributing expired or infested food,” one of the documents to Houthi authorities says.
Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Peter Graff