The UN children’s agency warned that more than 100,000 children in Ethiopia’s struggling Tigray region could face the most extreme and life-threatening form of malnutrition next year, as humanitarian aid is still blocked from some 6 million people.
The UN estimate, a tenfold increase over the usual cases in Tigray, is based on “mainly the scenario we see now, where the conflict is escalating and access to food is limited”, says Marixie Mercado with UNICEF’s emergency team to The Associated Press (AP).
The warning comes when high-ranking UN and US officials visit Ethiopia in the coming days to pressure the government to lift what the US has described as a “siege” of Tigray and when about 200 food-laden UN trucks are stuck on the only remaining road into in the region.
The world’s worst famine crisis in a decade is developing in Tigray, where the United States says up to 900,000 people are now facing starvation conditions and international food safety experts say the crucial planting season has “largely been missed” due to the war.
UNICEF’s estimate, based on screenings of more than 430,000 children during the nine-month conflict, comes after a rare visit to two districts in Tigray that had been “virtually inaccessible” – Gijet and Wajirat. While the AP has reported on deaths of people in another inaccessible Tigray district, Mercado said she did not hear of starvation during her visit.
But she warned of the “frightening number of acutely malnourished” people and expressed frustration because food, fuel, cash and other supplies are deficient. Although supplies inside Tigray have improved following a dramatic turnaround in the war in June when Ethiopian troops withdrew and the government declared a unilateral ceasefire, the UN has said aid workers are running out of aid.
“You can not provide services to people without fuel,” said an outraged Mercado, adding that during the visit to the previously inaccessible districts “we were just overwhelmed by the number of mothers and children who showed up and desperately wanted help.”
UNICEF also said that screening data show that 47% of all pregnant and breastfeeding women in Tigray are acutely malnourished, which means greater risk for both mothers and children.
The Ethiopian government has a sign on the aid blockade against the regenerating Tigray forces that have retaken a large part of the region and crossed to the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, but a senior official at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) told AP this week that it is “100% not the case.” USAID Administrator Samantha Power will visit Ethiopia next week to press for access.
At the same time, the new UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths is visiting Tigray as part of a six-day tour of Ethiopia aimed at highlighting the crisis, while there are few signs of negotiations in sight between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray forces that had long dominated the Ethiopian government. and military before being ousted by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
A UN humanitarian update on Friday outlined some of the latest aid challenges, including harassment and threats: No aid convoy has reached Tigray since July 12, although up to 600 lorries are needed each week. Aid workers on the UN’s first passenger flight to Tigray on July 22 were “extensively searched” and were not allowed to bring any important medicines. And no such flight has received permission from the government since.