The freshly agreed Yemen ceasefire deal covering the key Red Sea governorates of Hudaydah and Taiz has been welcomed by the World Food Programme (WFP), which on Friday expressed hope that it would improve access for humanitarians and, just as crucially, commercial shipping.
“This agreement has the potential to allow the ports of Hudaydah and Saleef to operate at near-normal capacity,” WFP spokesperson Hervé Verhoosel told journalists in Geneva. “The free flow of commercial food supplies into Yemen should prevent further increases in food prices, which have sky-rocketed in the last few months.”
WFP and other UN agencies have described Hudaydah as the principal lifeline for two-thirds of the population, who have endured suffering on a huge scale since fighting escalated between Government forces and Houthi opposition militia, in March 2015.
Before the warring sides agreed a deal at UN-led talks in Sweden this week, clashes had prevented the sustained supply of commercially shipped food and fuel through Hudaydah.
This led to a spike in prices which put basic goods beyond the reach of ordinary Yemenis.
“With the conflict intensifying over the recent weeks, we have seen a decrease of 50 per cent in shipments into Hudaydah port as private companies, shipping companies, were reluctant to use the port for security reasons,” Mr Verhoosel said. “We also hope, then, that it will change.”
The UN agency is also hopeful that it will soon regain access to a large milling and storage facility in Hudaydah – the Red Sea Mills - which supplies one-quarter of its flour for millions of people in north and central Yemen.
Significant role for UN in managing crucial port
According to the ceasefire agreement, the UN is to play a significant role in managing the port.
The UN has not had access to those facilities since September, Mr Verhoosel explained. “We hope that thanks to the agreement we will have access very soon to those facilities and we will be able to dispatch those 51,000 tonnes of wheat to assist 3.7 million people.”
To illustrate the widespread need for assistance in Yemen, Mr Verhoosel noted that in January 2017, WFP delivered aid to 3.5 million people a month, but that this number has now more than tripled. “It’s one of our biggest operations ever,” he said, adding that the agency plans to reach up to 12 million people during next month. Of particular concern are children and breastfeeding mothers, 1.5 million of whom will receive additional nutritional support in coming weeks.
Details of the ceasefire agreement were announced on Thursday by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who said that despite “pending” unresolved issues, it would improve the lives of millions of people.
In addition to an end to fighting in Hudaydah governorate, the cessation of hostilities also encompasses neighbouring Taizz governorate, where years of conflict in the city have posed serious access challenges to humanitarians.
The WFP Senior Spokesperson said he hoped that the “peace breakthrough” announced in Sweden would lead to similar agreements elsewhere in Yemen – and better humanitarian access to those in need.
“The deal is not enough, it’s a good start,” he said. “That’s why we look forward to January or later when the second round of discussions will take place under the Special Envoy’s leadership and we hope that other similar agreements will be reached in other parts of the country.”
Without assistance, 73 per cent of the population in Taiz – some 2.2 million people – risk “crisis” levels of food insecurity, WFP says. Around 1.3 million would experience “emergency” levels of hunger and 45,000 would face “famine-like” conditions.
Mr. Verhoosel said there was "still time to save millions of people” adding that “honestly, our staff is working 24 hours a day for the moment to avoid as much as we can a catastrophe.”