Update on Humanitarian Operations in Northern Ethiopia, 09 December 2021

By Dr. Catherine Sozi, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator

Good afternoon.

It is a pleasure to be here today and provide an update on the humanitarian operations in Northern Ethiopia, which has been an important focus of the humanitarian response in the country over the past 12 months plus.

Before going into the details, however, I would like to point out that the humanitarian needs in the rest of the country also remain significant. Humanitarian partners estimate that some 20 million people across the whole country require urgent humanitarian assistance.

Conflict, drought, flooding, disease outbreaks and desert locust infestation continue to drive humanitarian needs in Ethiopia. According to our analysis, there are at least 4 million displaced people across the country. Ethiopia also hosts the third largest refugee population in the continent.

The UN, together with our humanitarian partners, remains committed to addressing these growing needs and finding urgent and sustainable solutions in a complex environment. In doing so, we are working closely with authorities at federal, regional and zonal levels and, of course, the communities on the ground who are responding from their own homes and with their own resources. Resource requirements are immense, and it is important to acknowledge the continuous support of the Government of Ethiopia, our donor partners and humanitarian partners themselves.

Turning to Northern Ethiopia, the conflict continues to drive large-scale displacement, loss of livelihoods and limited access to markets, food and basic services. The latest numbers of people impacted are 3.7 million people in Amhara, more than 500,000 people in Afar, and 5.2 million people in Tigray. Of those, at least 400,000 are believed to be facing extreme food insecurity.

The nutrition situation is seriously and rapidly deteriorating, with screening data from all three regions showing malnutrition rates between 16 and 28 percent for children. Alarmingly, more than 50 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in Amhara and Tigray were also found to be malnourished.

The sexual and reproductive health as well as maternal health needs are increasing. Damaged health facilities and limited access to healthcare in some areas are aggravating the situation.

As stated in the Joint Investigation Report by the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission and the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights various acts of sexual and gender-based violence have been committed by all parties to the conflict since its start.

The conflict has had a devastating impact on children. Many children have been killed or injured in hostilities, have been separated or subjected to sexual violence.

Many health facilities and schools have been destroyed and medicine remains a scarce commodity.

This is just a snapshot of some of the needs, but it is clear that the situation is dire and continues to deteriorate the longer the conflict goes on.

When it comes to our response within a very complex environment, let me highlight a few achievements over the past weeks and months based on the reports received by the humanitarian partners on the ground:

Since 12 July, over 1300 trucks have moved food and non-food items (51,000 metric tons) between Semera and Mekelle. Since 23 November, when convoys restarted after a one-month gap, 203 trucks carrying around 8,800 metric tons of food and non-food items have moved from Semera to Mekelle.

Under the ongoing distributions, humanitarian food assistance has reached around 230,000 people in the Tigray Region. Over the past week, in response to the new displacement from Western Zone to North-Western Zone in Tigray, humanitarian partners provided food, water trucking services, WASH support, emergency shelter kits and education materials for children to the affected populations.

WASH support is being scaled up and over the last week, partners reached over 100,000 people compared to only 27,000 the week before.

Lifesaving healthcare services continue through mobile health and nutrition teams, reaching more than 45,000 people with various health services in 25 woredas in Tigray during the past seven days.

In Amhara, partners continue to scale up their response in areas that are accessible and secure across the region, including food, nutrition interventions, health services, education support, WASH services and prepositioning of stocks and commodities. To date, more than 947,000 people have been assisted with food under the current food distribution round in Amhara.

Thousands of displaced families at IDP sites in Motta, Ebinat, Debre Berhan, Debark and Mekaneselam received emergency shelter kits and non-food items over the past week. Health partners resumed support to health services in three hospitals in Amdework, North Mewucha and Meket, and to 19 health centres in Wag Hemra, North Gondar, South Gondar and North Wollo, including providing medical equipment, medicine and therapeutic food and nutrition supplements.

In Afar, partners also continue to scale up their response, including food, nutrition interventions and healthcare services through direct support to health facilities or through 30 mobile health and nutrition teams in the region. Nearly 16,000 people received food assistance in Koneba Woreda, increasing the number of people reached under the current food distribution to more than 102,000 people in the region. Partners prepositioned nutrition supplies and routine drugs sufficient to treat malnourished children till the end of the year. More than 26,000 IDPs received WASH supplies in four IDP sites in the region.

The Federal Government has approved the resumption of UNHAS flights to Tigray. The regular twice-weekly flights into Mekelle resumed on 24 November to rotate humanitarian personnel in and out of the region as well as to bring in cash to pay UN and international NGO staff and enable the operations on the ground.

While these developments are encouraging, humanitarian partners continue to face important challenges. Security concerns remain a key impediment to the operations and the humanitarian response over the past year has come at a steep cost. 23 humanitarian workers have lost their lives over the past 12 months in Northern Ethiopia. While humanitarian partners remain committed to providing urgent lifesaving assistance to those in need, the safety and security of our staff is paramount.

Moreover, due to limitations on supplies, fuel, cash and access issues, the humanitarian operation across Northern Ethiopia is severely constrained and not where they should be.

Crossline deliveries of humanitarian assistance remain challenging. Of the 9.4 million people in need of assistance across northern Ethiopia, more than 80 percent (7.8 million) remain behind battle lines.

Since July of this year, for example, the first-order impediments to our humanitarian response in Northern Ethiopia have been the direct and indirect impacts of the recent fighting in Amhara and Afar. Our recent assessments of the airports in Lalibela and Kombolcha have shown sizable damages as a result of the fighting.

I would like to stress here that it is vital that our humanitarian assistance reaches families in need wherever they are.

The safeguarding of humanitarian stocks for their intended purposes is a top priority. Important challenges in this respect have emerged and UN and partners’ stocks have been looted, UN property was forcefully entered, vehicles and trucks have been taken by parties to the conflict and humanitarian staff have been severely harassed and intimidated.

In Kombolcha over recent days, large quantities of humanitarian food supplies – including nutritional items for malnourished children – have been stolen and looted in the town of Kombolcha in the Amhara region. The small-scale theft of food escalated into mass looting of warehouses across Kombolcha in recent days, reportedly by elements of the Tigrayan forces and some members of the local population.

The exact amount of food taken is still being determined, but what is clear is that these incidents will further worsen malnutrition and prolong food insecurity in northern Ethiopia. An estimated 9.4 million people across Tigray, Amhara and Afar are now in critical need of food assistance.

The World Food Programme teams on the ground were not able to prevent the looting in the face of extreme intimidation, including staff being held at gunpoint. As a result, WFP has suspended food distributions in the towns of Dessie and Kombolcha.

Harassment of humanitarian staff by armed forces is unacceptable and undermines the ability of the United Nations and all of our humanitarian partners to deliver assistance when it is most needed, particularly as aid workers face growing access challenges. Commandeering of trucks used for humanitarian operations is also unacceptable.

We strongly condemn all of these incidents and reiterate our calls to all parties to the conflict to respect and protect humanitarian relief personnel and objects, in line with their obligations under international humanitarian law. It is prohibited to attack, destroy, misappropriate or loot relief supplies, installations, materials, units or vehicles.

Moving humanitarian cargo into Tigray has also been challenging. There are currently 115 trucks in Semera loaded with humanitarian cargo destined for Mekelle. These trucks have received Federal clearances but are awaiting regional clearances in Afar to proceed to Mekelle.

WFP is working with authorities and local community elders to negotiate the movement of further convoys. To date, 322 trucks have exited the Tigray region and over 500 are known to remain in the region. There are various reasons for this, none of them are insurmountable and we are working with regional authorities to find solutions.

There is insufficient fuel for humanitarian operations in the Tigray region. Supplies available in the region have not been availed to partners in sufficient volume. We are working with authorities and community leaders to release additional fuel in a timely manner, which is essential to delivering food and other non-food items to the most vulnerable as soon as possible.

Finally, in order to support the humanitarian operations in Tigray, it will be paramount to ensure that sufficient operational cash can be brought into the region by humanitarian partners.

We continue to work with the authorities at the federal and regional level as well as with the communities on the ground to find solutions to these challenges to enable a continued scale-up of the humanitarian response to reach all people in need.

I would like to end by reaffirming that the UN has only one mission in Ethiopia – that is to support the Ethiopian people. In addition to providing lifesaving humanitarian assistance to the people in need, this includes also finding more sustainable solutions to the humanitarian crises and support the country to reach the Sustainable Development Goals.