GENEVA (AFP) - UN chief Antonio Guterres urged countries on Tuesday (April 25) to pitch in to help prevent a looming famine in war-torn Yemen, warning that children especially were already dying at an alarming rate.
"Yemen today is experiencing a tragedy of immense proportions," the UN Secretary General told country representatives gathered in Geneva for an aid pledging conference.
"We are witnessing the starving and the crippling of an entire generation," he said, adding that Yemen is gripped by "the world's largest hunger crisis".
Appealing to donors, he stressed that "a famine can be prevented if we act quickly and commit to funding crucial life-saving assistance".
The conference, co-hosted by the Swiss and Swedish foreign ministers, comes after the UN in February said Yemen needed US$2.1 billion (S$2.9 billion) of aid this year alone.
The UN had warned that unless international donors stepped up their response the war-torn country faced a "serious risk of famine".
By Tuesday, only 15 per cent of that appeal had been funded, Guterres said.
UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien told the conference that Yemen was "the world's largest humanitarian crisis today."
A total of 17 million people, or around 60 per cent of its population, are going hungry, while seven million of them do not know where their next meal is coming from and need immediate food aid, the UN said.
Children especially are bearing the brunt of the crisis.
"On average, a child under the age of five dies of preventable causes in Yemen every 10 minutes," Guterres said.
"This means 50 children in Yemen will die during today's conference, and all those deaths could have been prevented."
Many of the children who survive "will be affected by stunting and poor health for their entire lives," he added.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom noted that with two million children out of school, there is a growing risk of recruitment by armed groups, while two-thirds of girls are married off before the age of 18.
"We must act now," she said.
Yemen's war has pitted pro-government forces against Iran-backed Huthi rebels and their allies, renegade troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to help the government retake the capital Sanaa and swathes of the country's north and west.
Fighting in Yemen has killed more than 7,700 people over the past two years and forced 3.3 million people to flee their homes, according to UN numbers.