Famine looms in Ethiopia’s war-ravaged Tigray region, U.N. says

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Famine is now knocking on the door of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where a civil war that erupted last year has drastically cut the food supply and prevented relief workers from helping the hungry, the top U.N. humanitarian official has warned.

In a confidential note to the United Nations Security Council, the official, Mark Lowcock, the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said sections of Tigray, a region of more than five million people, are now one step from famine — in part because the government has obstructed aid shipments.

The note, seen by The New York Times, was submitted Tuesday under a Security Council resolution requiring such notification when conflicts cause famine and widespread food insecurity.

“These circumstances now arise in the Tigray region of Northern Ethiopia,” Mr. Lowcock said in the note. While below-average rain, locusts and the Covid-19 pandemic have all contributed to food scarcity, he said, “the scale of the food crisis Tigray faces today is a clear result of the conflict and the behavior of the parties.”

Ethiopia, Africa’s most populous country after Nigeria, with about 115 million people, has been convulsed by the Tigray conflict since last November. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and neighboring Eritrea ordered their military forces into the region to crush Mr. Abiy’s political rivals and strengthen his control.

What Mr. Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, predicted would be a short operation has instead become a quagmire that threatens to destabilize the Horn of Africa. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have been accused of ethnic cleansing, massacres and other atrocities in Tigray that amount to war crimes.

While the United Nations and international relief organizations have achieved some cooperation from the Ethiopian authorities in gaining access to deprived areas of Tigray, Mr. Lowcock said in his note, such cooperation has deteriorated in recent months.

“Humanitarian operations are being attacked, obstructed or delayed in delivering lifesaving assistance,” he wrote, and at least eight aid workers have been killed.

“As a result of impediments and the effect of restrictions, not nearly enough support is being provided,” he wrote. He urged Security Council members “to take any steps possible to prevent a famine from occurring.”

His warning was echoed by Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, the main U.S. government provider of humanitarian assistance to needy countries. Ms. Power, a former American ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement that one of the aid workers killed had worked for the agency she now runs.

“The risk of famine in Ethiopia looms for the first time in over 30 years,” Ms. Power said.

President Biden, in a statement issued Wednesday night, called on “all parties, in particular the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces” to allow “immediate, unimpeded humanitarian access” to Tigray in order to prevent widespread famine.

Mr. Biden said the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, would travel to the region next week to lead “a renewed U.S. diplomatic effort to help peacefully resolve the interlinked conflicts across the region.”

The heightened concern over famine comes as the historically friendly relations between the United States and Ethiopia face new strains. The United States recently cut some economic and security assistance to Ethiopia, the largest recipient of American aid in sub-Saharan Africa.

On Sunday, the Biden administration took the unusual step of penalizing Ethiopia over growing American exasperation with Mr. Abiy’s actions in Tigray. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced visa restrictions on officials linked to the conflict, preventing their travel to the United States.

Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry reacted angrily, calling the restrictions “extremely regrettable” and suggesting they would “seriously undermine this longstanding and important bilateral relationship.”