The UN’s humanitarian chief has warned that famine is imminent in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region and the country’s north, and there is a risk that hundreds of thousands of people will die.
Mark Lowcock said that the situation has “horrible echoes” of the 1984 famine, and revealed that the area’s economy has been destroyed along with businesses, crops and farms, and that there are no banking or telecommunications services.
“We are hearing of starvation-related deaths already,” Mr Lowcock said.
“People need to wake up. The international community needs to really step up, including through the provision of money.”
"Humanitarian and development partners need to work together. Where there is no peace - there can be no development." @CNSozi is the head of @UNEthiopia. #Ethiopia— UN Geneva (@UNGeneva) June 4, 2021
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It is not known how many thousands of civilians or combatants have been killed since months of political tensions between Ethiopian president Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Tigray leaders who once dominated Ethiopia’s government erupted into warfare last November.
Eritrea, a long-standing enemy of Tigray, has sided with neighbouring Ethiopia in the conflict.
In late May, Mr Lowcock – the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs – painted a grim picture of Tigray since the war began, with an estimated two million people displaced, civilians killed and injured, rapes and other forms of “abhorrent sexual violence” widespread and systematic, and public and private infrastructure essential for civilians destroyed, including hospitals and agricultural land.
There is now a risk of a loss of life running into the hundreds of thousands - or worseMark Lowcock, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs
“There are now hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ethiopia in famine conditions,” Mr Lowcock said.
“That’s the worst famine problem the world has seen for a decade, since a quarter of a million Somalis lost their lives in the famine there in 2011.
“This now has horrible echoes of the colossal tragedy in Ethiopia in 1984.”
In the disastrous famine of 1984-85, about two million Africans died of starvation or famine-related ailments, about half of them in Ethiopia.
“There is now a risk of a loss of life running into the hundreds of thousands – or worse,” Mr Lowcock said.
He said getting food and other humanitarian aid to all those in need is proving very difficult for aid agencies.
The United Nations and the Ethiopian government have helped about two million people in recent months in northern Ethiopia, mainly in government-controlled areas, he said.
But Mr Lowcock said there are more than a million people in places controlled by Tigrayan opposition forces and “there have been deliberate, repeated, sustained attempts to prevent them getting food”.
In addition, there are places controlled by the Eritreans and other places controlled by militia groups where it is extremely difficult to deliver aid, he said.
“The access for aid workers is not there because of what men with guns and bombs are doing and what their political masters are telling them to do,” the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs added.
Humanitarian partners in #Tigray continue to provide support where possible. However, insecurity & underfunding are limiting partners' reach & activity.— UN OCHA Ethiopia (@OCHA_Ethiopia) June 3, 2021
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Mr Lowcock said all the blockades need to be rolled back and the Eritreans, “who are responsible for a lot of this”, need to withdraw in order for aid to get through to those facing famine.
“Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed needs to do what he said he was going to do and force the Eritreans to leave Ethiopia,” he said.
Mr Lowcock said leaders of the seven major industrialised nations – the UK, US, Germany, France, Japan, Italy and Canada – need to put the humanitarian crisis and threat of widespread famine in northern Ethiopia on the agenda of their summit from June 11-13 in Cornwall.
And he warned: “Everyone needs to understand that were there to be a colossal tragedy of the sort that happened in 1984, the consequences would reach far and last long.”