UNICEF WASH services in Yemen face imminent closure

UNICEF provides water trucking in Yemen. Photo by: Julien Harneis / CC BY-SA

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Unless UNICEF receives $30 million in the next two weeks, its water, sanitation, and hygiene services in Yemen will be forced to close, the organization says.

The amount is part of UNICEF’s broader 2020 appeal for $479 million to continue providing essential services in Yemen, a country gripped by war and famine. Only 38% of that appeal has been funded so far. The United Nations agency says a withdrawal of such essential services would affect the 4 million Yemenis — about half of whom are children — who directly depend on UNICEF.

UN appeal to address Yemen 'catastrophe' falls $1B short

At a virtual event, donors pledged $1.35 billion for the humanitarian response in Yemen — about half of the requested amount. The gap could lead the U.N. to further scale back work in the country, as it already planned to cut three-fourths of its programs.

“The most immediate and critical funding gap is for emergency water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) operations, including for the COVID-19 response,” said Marixie Mercado, UNICEF spokesperson in Geneva, in a briefing note.

As of Thursday, the country had recorded over 900 coronavirus cases and around 250 related deaths. At the same time, 17.8 million people lack access to safe water and sanitation, which is critical to preventing the spread of the virus.

Without the funds, Mercado said UNICEF will not be able to provide fuel to operate water-pumping stations, desludge sewage, or maintain water and sanitation infrastructure. “It means we will not be able to distribute basic family hygiene kits that include soap, which is so critical for preventing both cholera and COVID in a context where millions don’t have access to hand-washing facilities,” she added.

Nearly 137,000 suspected cases of cholera have been recorded in the country since the start of 2019 — and one-third of those are among children under 5.

Bismarck Swangin, chief of communication and advocacy at UNICEF Yemen, added that the organization will be unable to pay incentives for water and sanitation workers — who construct or fix water infrastructure — and rapid response teams working to prevent cholera. This would be the first time UNICEF programs in Yemen would have to end due to a lack of funding, he said, adding that significant gains made over the years would be undermined since no other organization would be able to take on the large-scale operations.

“Yemen is already the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, and any massive suspension or withdrawal of aid funding for Yemen will have a profound, immediate, and long-lasting impact on Yemeni children and their families,” said Peter Nyamoko, national WASH adviser for Yemen at Save the Children.

Beyond the initial $30 million needed to carry services beyond June, $110 million is required to ensure WASH services can run through to the year-end.

The urgent call for funding follows a virtual pledging conference for the humanitarian response in Yemen, which fell short of the $2.4 billion target set by the U.N. to address the country’s basic needs until the end of 2020. Instead, pledges from donors — including the U.K. and European Commission — totaled $1.35 billion. In previous years, the U.N. has been able to raise over $2 billion for the country, where 24.1 million people require aid.

Already, a lack of funding has meant the closure of 30 of the U.N.’s 41 major programs in Yemen. On top of this, bombing in the ongoing conflict is wiping out much of the existing water infrastructure — as well as bridges, ports, roads, and hospitals.

“Repetitive bombing of medical facilities and the destruction of sewage systems is decimating Yemen’s health infrastructure, encouraging the return of water-related diseases,” said Alison Bottomley, advocacy adviser at Humanity & Inclusion, in a statement. Within the International Network on Explosive Weapons, HI is helping develop a political declaration to end the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The struggle for funding is being impacted by the current coronavirus crisis, Swangin said. “But Yemen is currently the worst humanitarian crisis — it was even before COVID-19,” he said.

“Yemen is already the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, and any massive suspension or withdrawal of aid funding ... will have a profound, immediate, and long-lasting impact.”

— Peter Nyamoko, national WASH adviser for Yemen, Save the Children

Nyamoko said Save the Children is also facing funding challenges, which is impacting some of its work.

Institutional funding may be challenging to secure because of the difficulties in visiting the country due to the ongoing crisis, said Shakil Sidat, director of programs at U.K.-based charity Muslim Hands, which helps those affected by natural disasters, conflict, and poverty.

“We are aware that local partners on the ground are finding it difficult to secure repeat funding, and this could be because the pandemic has created a massive strain on all health systems across the world, where funding priorities may have been reassessed and invested elsewhere,” he said.

As yet, Muslim Hands' revenue has not been impacted and support for its projects in Yemen remains forthcoming, Sidat added.

Foreseeing a potential gap in WASH services, the organization has pledged £1 million ($1.2 million) for its programs in Yemen, including WASH projects for the restoration of facilities in remote villages and camps and the construction of wells. Nyamoko said Save the Children is also working to mobilize resources to help address the funding gaps.

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  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.