The World Food Programme will start to suspend its operations in parts of the country Houthi rebels control as soon as this week if the group does not agree to implement a biometrics system intended to prevent aid fraud, the head of the UN agency said on Monday.
WFP Executive Director David Beasley told the UN Security Council he had signed agreements with the Houthis on biometric registration of aid recipients starting last December, but "every time we got close to actually putting those agreements into place, there would be a new roadblock."
If the WFP does not receive "assurances" that these agreements would be honoured, "we will begin a phased suspension of food assistance, most likely towards the end of this week," Beasley warned.
Discussions on putting a biometrics system in place have been ongoing for months, after a series of allegations - both in the media and by WFP itself - that Houthi-aligned local officials have diverted aid by manipulating the lists of beneficiaries, re-selling stores of food aid, and falsifying records.
The UN's food aid agency delivers monthly rations, cash, or vouchers to 10.2 million people in Yemen - its largest operation in the world. On Monday, UN relief chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council there were "famine-like conditions in dozens of places across Yemen".
The WFP says biometric registration of a new database of aid recipients, already in place in some parts of Yemen that the Houthis do not control, would ensure aid gets where it is supposed to. But the Houthis have objected to the programme on the grounds that they, rather than the WFP, should be in control of the data.
The WFP first suggested in May that it was considering a "phased suspension" of its activities in Yemen because of the delay in implementation, but this is the first time the agency has publicly given the Houthis a timeline.
Two UN officials and a Houthi source - all three requested anonymity because they weren't authorised to speak to the media - said that while meetings on the issue are ongoing, WFP has given the Houthis a deadline of later this week to agree to the biometrics programme before it begins to suspend aid deliveries.
A source inside the Houthi-run National Authority for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or NAMCHA, confirmed that WFP had said it would stop operations in Sana'a only if the Houthis did not agree to the biometric registration by the agency's deadline.
"We refuse the enrolling of beneficiaries in a biometrics programme because it is counter to national security," the NAMCHA source said, adding that the Houthis were still in talks with the WFP to find an alternative to the biometrics programme.
At the Security Council, Beasley said stopping operations "goes against every fibre of our being", but that it might be necessary to protect the "integrity" of the United Nations. "I am begging the Houthis... to let us do what we do best: save lives," he said.
For more than four years, Houthi rebels, officially called Ansar Allah, have been fighting the internationally recognised (but mostly exiled) government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and its allies in a Saudi Arabia and UAE-led coalition.
The war has left more than 20 million people "food insecure" by the UN's estimate, and led to widespread malnutrition, an unknown number of deaths from hunger, and consistent warnings that the country is on the brink of famine.
A 'partial, phased' suspension
If the WFP does decide on a suspension, the announcement will be made from the WFP's headquarters in Rome, according to a leaked email sent on 13 June by WFP Yemen country director Stephen Anderson. A WFP source confirmed the authenticity of the email.
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In the email to staff, Anderson said a "partial, phased suspension [in food assistance] remains the option of last resort, one we hope to avoid," and that while talks were ongoing to head off the stoppage, "we also need to be prepared to take action in order to preserve the accountability of the Yemen operation."
"In the event of a suspension, nutrition programmes for women and children will continue," the email stated.
One of the two UN officials said aid would first be paused in the Houthi-run capital city of Sana'a, but it wasn't yet clear how many people could be impacted.
The UN official said that if the stoppage does happen, beneficiaries in Sana'a might be notified by text message that they would not be receiving their rations. The official added that the WFP hopes to continue negotiations with the Houthis even if food deliveries are slowed in Sana'a and possibly other Houthi-controlled parts of the country.