Ethiopia: 'We Must Stop a Colossal Humanitarian Tragedy' in Tigray, UN Warns

An aid worker distributes food and other items in Mekele, Tigray.

The UN's humanitarian chief has warned that some 90 percent of people in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia are in desperate need of food aid, with hundreds of thousands living in 'famine conditions'. And yet members of the UN Security Council have failed to agree on meeting to discuss the situation. As he prepares to leave his post, Mark Lowcock told RFI why it's time for the international community to step up.

No one knows how many thousands of civilians or combatants have been killed since political tensions between Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed's government and the Tigray leaders who used to dominate Ethiopia's government exploded into war last November.

But the UN has a clearer picture of the misery it has caused, with an estimated two million people displaced, civilians killed and injured, rapes and other forms of sexual violence becoming widespread and systematic. Public and private infrastructure, essential for civilians, has also been destroyed, including hospitals and agricultural land.

The result is a food security situation bordering on famine, explains Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator since 2017. What's more, as he wrote in a recent briefing, "there have been deliberate, repeated, sustained attempts to prevent [people in places controlled by Tigrayan opposition forces] from getting food".

"It is a very alarming situation, it's the worst food insecurity problem I've seen for many years now, possibly the worst since the terrible famine that took the lives of quarter of a million Somalis 10 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of people in northern Ethiopia are, in my own assessment, now living in effectively famine conditions," he told RFI.

850 million dollars needed

Getting food aid to these people is vital, but while the UN and the Ethiopian government have helped about two million people in recent months, mainly in government-controlled areas, Lowcock says it is much harder accessing people in places controlled by Tigrayan opposition forces, by the Eritreans and other places controlled by militia groups.

There has to be a "dramatic reduction in hostilities, and a removal of all of the blockages in the way of aid agencies, men on check-points and so on," he insists. They also need "a lot more international aid workers because the government does not have full control of Tigray - there are some places where there are huge numbers of people needing help, where government institutions aren't there any more."

The UN released $65M for the humanitarian response in Ethiopia, where more than 16 million people need humanitarian assistance, including at least 4.5 million in Tigray.

But humanitarian organizations need much more funding + safe and unfettered access.

- Mark Lowcock (@UNReliefChief) May 6, 2021

Crucially, they need more funding.

"We think we'll need $850 million to avoid a colossal tragedy this year in Tigray and we've got about half of that promised so far and not all of that has been paid."

Lowcock is also calling on the Security Council to reach a common accord and bring its weight to the table.

"In 2018, the Security Council passed a resolution instructing the Secretary General and me to send a note whenever we thought there was a circumstance where conflict would lead to widescale food security and hunger and starvation," he explains. "Two weeks ago we sent them exactly that note on Tigray because we're so alarmed at the situation. Every previous time we've done it they've had a meeting. So it's up to them to have a meeting.

"But what they could do is call for a cessation of hostilities, the facilitation for access of aid agencies, more support for funding and more space for humanitarian agencies to operate. Because it's the security council, people would have to listen to that."

Avoiding a colossal tragedy

One of Lowcock's first jobs at the UN was responding to the famine in 1984-85 when some two million Africans died of starvation or famine-related ailments, about half of them in Ethiopia. The spectre of that time looms large.

"I have never forgotten some of the things I saw then. It's not irrational - on the basis of what's happening - to worry about a repetition of that. We need to do everything to prevent such a colossal tragedy because it would be a humanitarian catastrophe for the people of Tigray, but it would also have wider ramifications for Ethiopia and the region, which would last a long time."

Tackle the causes

In two weeks Lowcock will step down from the post he's held for the last four years. It's been a turbulent time.

"Unfortunately humanitarian needs around the world have grown, especially in the Middle East and large parts of Africa," he says, "and that's essentially because the causes of humanitarian problems - which are above all conflict and climate change, and now Covid - have not been adequately addressed. We've been dealing with the symptoms."

The picture is not altogether negative, providing the decision makers can tackle the problems at the root.

UN will need support of African states in Tigray conflict, says leading analyst

"What I think the world should be grateful for and positive about is that we've so far been able to contain most of these problems. We haven't had huge famines with a million people losing their lives in the way that was quite common up to 10,15 or 20 years ago.

"Humanitarian agencies meet the needs of 100 million people every year but if all you do is contain the problems, if you don't address the causes, the problems just keep getting worse. So my main message to decision makers, tackle the causes not just the symptoms."

Lowcock is pushing for the leaders of the seven major industrialised nations (G7) to put northern Ethiopia's humanitarian crisis on the agenda of their next summit from 11 to 13 June in the UK.

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