The United Nations humanitarian chief has warned that famine is imminent in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region as well as the country’s north and there is a risk that hundreds of thousands of people or more will die.
Mark Lowcock said the economy has been destroyed along with businesses, crops and farms and there are no banking or telecommunications services.
“We are hearing of starvation-related deaths already,” he said in a statement released on Friday. “People need to wake up. The international community needs to really step up, including through the provision of money.”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, ordered a ground and air military operation in Tigray in early November 2020 after accusing the northern region’s then-ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), of orchestrating attacks on federal army camps.
The six-month-old Tigray conflict is blamed for the deaths of thousands of people and atrocities including rape, extrajudicial killings and forced evictions, according to local authorities and aid groups.
Eritrea teamed up with neighbouring Ethiopia in the conflict.
“The conflict has destroyed livelihoods and infrastructure … brought about mass killings, abductions and sexual violence,” Lowcock told Al Jazeera before adding that there was evidence pointing towards Eritrea using “starvation as a weapon of war”, a violation and breach of humanitarian law.
“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. There is now a risk of a loss of life running into the hundreds of thousands or worse.”
He added 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 undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs said.
Lowcock said all the blockages need to be rolled back and the Eritreans, “who are responsible for a lot of this need to withdraw” so aid can 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.
Lowcock said leaders of the seven major industrialised nations – the United States, United Kingdom, 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, England.