The Tigray region of northern Ethiopia stands on the edge of a humanitarian disaster, the UN has said, as fighting escalates and stocks of essential food for malnourished children run out.
The World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday that it would be distributing its last supplies of cereals, pulses and oil next week to Tigray, where more than 5 million people are estimated to be in need of food assistance.
Fierce clashes between forces loyal to the federal government in Addis Ababa and fighters with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front have meant that no WFP convoys have reached Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, since mid-December.
Stocks of nutritionally fortified food for the treatment of malnourished children and women have now been exhausted, the agency said in a statement. Fuel to deliver the last of the essential food supplies is also running extremely low, it said.
It is also increasingly worried about hunger levels in the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar, where more than 4 million people are thought to be in need of food assistance.
“We’re now having to choose who goes hungry to prevent another from starving,” said Michael Dunford, WFP’s regional director for eastern Africa.
“We need immediate guarantees from all parties to the conflict for safe and secure humanitarian corridors, via all routes, across northern Ethiopia. Humanitarian supplies are simply not flowing at the pace and scale needed,” he said.
“The lack of both food and fuel means we’ve only been able to reach 20% of those we should have in this latest distribution in Tigray. We’re on the edge of a humanitarian disaster.”
Thousands of people are thought to have died in the conflict between the TPLF and forces loyal to the Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, since it began in November 2020. Several million have been forced from their homes.
Health and aid workers say the last few days have been particularly bloody because of a wave of airstrikes, including one on a camp for internally displaced people that is reported to have killed at least 56.
A UN human rights office (OHCHR) spokesperson told Reuters on Friday: “At least 108 civilians have reportedly been killed and 75 others injured since the year began as a result of air strikes allegedly carried out by the Ethiopian air force.”
The Ethiopian government has previously denied targeting civilian sites, and it reacted angrily on Thursday to condemnation of the situation in Tigray by the World Health Organization (WHO) chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who had accused the authorities of blocking medical supplies to the region.
He told reporters it was “so dreadful and unimaginable during this time, the 21st century, when a government is denying its own people for more than a year food and medicine and the rest to survive”. Tedros is from Tigray.
The government said in response that it had sent a letter to the WHO, accusing him of “misconduct” and of not living up “to the integrity and professional expectations required from his office”.
Through his acts, Tedros had “spread harmful misinformation and compromised WHO’s reputation, independence and credibility,” Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said, according to a statement seen by the Associated Press.
WHO had no immediate response to the claims.