The UN’s humanitarian chief has warned that famine is imminent in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region and the country’s north. There’s now a risk that hundreds of thousands of people will die.
Echoes of the past
Mark Lowcock said that the situation has “horrible echoes” of the 1984 famine. The area’s economy has been destroyed along with businesses, crops, and farms, and there are also no banking or telecommunications services. Lowcock said:
We are hearing of starvation-related deaths already.
People need to wake up. The international community needs to really step up, including through the provision of money.
— UN Geneva (@UNGeneva) June 4, 2021
It’s 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, 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 are now hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ethiopia in famine conditions. 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. Lowcock said:
There is now a risk of a loss of life running into the hundreds of thousands – or worse
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 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, Lowcock said. He added:
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
Humanitarian partners in #Tigray continue to provide support where possible. However, insecurity & underfunding are limiting partners' reach & activity.
Read about the ongoing response, needs & challenges in our latest Situation Report 📲 https://t.co/mUnOTRiv0a
📸 OCHA/Jordi pic.twitter.com/QdMxLiYq80
— UN OCHA Ethiopia (@OCHA_Ethiopia) June 3, 2021
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. He said:
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed needs to do what he said he was going to do and force the Eritreans to leave Ethiopia
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.
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