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30-07-2021 | Press Conferences

UNOG Bi-weekly press briefing 30 July 2021


Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by the spokespersons and representatives of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the United Nations Environment Programme.

Ethiopia: deteriorating humanitarian situation in Tigray

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that yesterday, after more than eight months of conflict in Tigray, 5.2 million people (about 90 per cent of the population) needed life-saving humanitarian assistance. Millions of people were severely food-insecure and hundreds of thousands were facing famine-like conditions. Extremely concerning levels of acute malnutrition had been observed among children.

The conflict in Tigray had started in the middle of the harvest season in November 2020. At that time, 25 per cent of crops had already been lost due to locusts. Over 90 per cent of what was left of the harvest was estimated to have been lost due to looting, burning, or other destruction. It was critical that farmers were provided now with the tools, assistance and access needed to sow their crops. OCHA estimated that at least 500 trucks of supplies were needed each week to meet the needs in Tigray. However, since late June only one 50-truck convoy of aid supplies had been able to enter Tigray. 

Humanitarian partners had reached nearly 3.7 million people. But the response was challenged by cut-off communications services and widespread power cuts. The movement of aid personnel and supplies was possible via one route, through the Afar region, which required passing through multiple checkpoints, where humanitarian personnel had been interrogated, intimidated and in some instances detained. Entry routes to Tigray should be opened to enable humanitarian organizations to prevent large-scale loss of life. The Government of Ethiopia must permit humanitarians to bring in additional communications equipment, as well as provide longer visas for NGO staff.

The operating environment in Tigray was extremely dangerous. At least 12 aid workers had been killed, including on 24 June, when three MSF staff were brutally murdered. Money was also a problem: more than US$430 million (half of the total requirement) were still needed for the humanitarian response in Tigray until the end of the year. 

Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), returning from a visit to the region, said that as UNICEF was now able to reach areas of Tigray that were inaccessible in past months due to insecurity, its worst fears about the health and wellbeing of children in that conflicted region of northern Ethiopia were being confirmed.

UNICEF estimated that over 100,000 children in Tigray could suffer from life-threatening severe acute malnutrition in the next 12 months – a tenfold increase compared to the annual average. Data indicated that 47 per cent of all pregnant and breastfeeding women were acutely malnourished: mothers could face more pregnancy-related complications, increasing the risks of maternal death during childbirth as well as the delivery of low-birth-weight babies who would be much more prone to sickness and death.

This malnutrition crisis was taking place amid systematic damage to the food, health, nutrition, water and sanitation systems and services that children and their families depend on for their survival. The risk of disease outbreaks was high, particularly in the overcrowded, unsanitary sites hosting displaced families. In many places, there were no supplies of the therapeutic foods needed to treat severe acute malnutrition; and children had not been vaccinated for months.

The recent uptick of fighting in neighboring Afar and Amhara regions, where nearly 1.5 million people were already facing acute food insecurity, was aggravating conditions across all northern Ethiopia. UNICEF was dispatching supplies now to meet new emergency needs in Afar and Amhara.

UNICEF needed unfettered access into Tigray and across the region, to urgently provide support to children and women. Right now, UNICEF had only 6,900 cartons of life-saving therapeutic foods in its warehouses in Tigray – enough to treat severe malnutrition in just 6,900 children.

Reversing the nutrition, health, water, and food security catastrophe required a massive scale up of humanitarian assistance. That meant the humanitarian community must be allowed to conduct its work without hindrance, including being able to access fuel, cash, and telecommunications, being able to bring in the supplies needed and being allowed to conduct normal financial transactions.

Ms. Mercado indicated that multimedia content on malnutrition in northern Ethiopia was available here.

Answering questions from journalists, Mr. Laerke said that Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffith had arrived on a six-day mission to Ethiopia. During the mission, Mr. Griffith was expected to travel to the Tigray region, where he would meet civilians affected by the crisis as well as regional authorities.

Mr. LeBlanc added that Rosemary DiCarlo, UN Under-Secretary General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, during an official visit to Ethiopia earlier this week, had met the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen, as well as Minister of Peace Muferiat Kamil. Ms. DiCarlo emphasized the UN’s support for a peaceful solution to the Tigray conflict, echoing the Secretary General’s own call for all parties to use dialogue to resolve the conflict, protect civilians from violence and allow unimpeded humanitarian aid to reach the people who need it the most.

Ms. Mercado said she was struck, during her own visit in Tigray, by the extent of needs in this very large humanitarian crisis. The psychological impact of violence, including sexual violence, was also very strong. Quoting from the Famine Review Committee’s 22 July report on the situation in Tigray, Ms. Mercado said that huge numbers of people were extremely hungry right now: 400,000 people – 40 per cent of which were children – were “acutely food insecure”, on top of 4 million people being in “acute or emergency-level of food insecurity”. “If and when famine is declared, by then countless children will already have died due to sickness and malnutrition”, Ms. Mercado warned.

Tomson Phiri, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said it had been more than two weeks since a WFP-led convoy had reached Mekelle, in Tigray. A 200-truck convoy was now on its way to Mekelle. But that was only a drop in the ocean: hundreds of trucks should enter Tigray every day, and at a faster pace, to reverse this catastrophic situation. Answering another question regarding obstacles to the access to Mekelle, Mr. Phiri said that in conflict situations, such as the one in Tigray, humanitarian agencies, including WFP, needed to work with all authorities and parties concerned.

Answering questions regarding the impact of COVID-19 in Tigray, Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization(WHO), indicated that, nationwide, most cases were reported in Addis Ababa, Amhara, and Oromia; Tigray accounted for 8,171 cases, but those cases were certainly underreported. While COVID-19 was a concern, WHO was also preoccupied by other diseases such as malaria, cholera, measles, and acute respiratory infections.

Mr. Laerke insisted that OCHA was asking for the Government of Ethiopia to allow humanitarians to bring in additional communications equipment, as no distribution of aid could be done without it. The Government was also asked to provide longer-term visas for NGO staff. There were 2,200 humanitarian staff in Tigray, including 360 UN staff.

Food crises and hunger hotspots

Tomson Phiri, for the World Food Programme, said journalists had already received a joint FAO/WFP news release on “hunger hotspots”, featuring early warnings on acute food insecurity and focusing on August to November 2021.

Patrick Jacqueson, Officer in Charge at Food and Agriculture Organization Geneva Liaison Office, referring to the Global Report on Food Crisis - 2021 released earlier this year, said this latest report provided country-specific recommendations for anticipatory action and emergency response to save lives and livelihoods and, in some contexts where the risk was high, to prevent famine. This edition also focused on the period from August to November 2021. It indicated new and concerning deteriorations in parts of Ethiopia and Madagascar, as well as continued high levels of concern in many other countries, driven once again by conflict, climate extremes, economic turbulence, and the secondary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conflict remained the primary driver for the largest share of people facing acute food insecurity (around 65 per cent). Closely associated with conflict were humanitarian access constraints, which compounded food insecurity. Also, food prices had steadily increased from June 2020 to May 2021, and were more than 30 per cent higher year on year. High international food prices together with high freight costs were likely to increase the global food import bill in 2021. Steep prices would constrain food access of vulnerable households and negatively impact food security.

Turning to the situation in five specific “hotspot countries”, Annalisa Conte, Director of the World Food Programme Geneva office, explained that in Ethiopia, the aggravation of conflict in the past months was having a catastrophic impact on the food security of the Tigray population, as had previously been explained. More than 400,000 people were going to face starvation if sufficient humanitarian assistance was not rapidly provided. Climate variability and weather extremes were compounding factors.

Madagascar was experiencing the worst drought in 40 years. Compounding factors included an economic downturn caused by COVID-19, a very low harvest as well as fall armyworm and locust invasions. Over 500,000 children under 5 in the Grand South would likely suffer from acute malnutrition through April 2022 (110,000 severely malnourished in urgent need of action).

In South Sudan, conflict, COVID-19, a locust invasion, and economic decline had had a compounded impact on food security, with more than 7.2 million persons being food insecure. Risks of famine were observed in several districts.

In Yemen, where more than 16 million people were affected by acute food insecurity, the risk of more people facing famine-like conditions had probably been contained thanks to increased humanitarian assistance. However, from August to November, the economic decline would continue to affect people’s purchasing power and access to food.

Finally, in Nigeria, some 13 million people were expected to face crisis or worse during the lean season (June-August 2021), including over 800,000 people facing critical acute food insecurity. Deterioration in food security was likely to continue in the coming months unless ongoing humanitarian assistance and resilience-building were intensified.

Read the press release here.

Press conferences

Charles Avis, for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), announced that a press conference would be held today at 3 p.m. (Geneva time) to present the outcomes from the “2021 Triple Conference of Parties” to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. The topic would be chemicals and waste, and recent implementation progress of the three conventions, including on plastic waste. Speakers would be Rolph Payet, Executive Secretary (UNEP) of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions; and Remi Nono Womdim, Executive Secretary (FAO) of the Rotterdam Convention.

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization, said a press conference on COVID-19 would be held today at 4 p.m., with Dr Tedros and other experts.

Geneva announcements

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service, said the Committee Against Torture would hold today, at 1:15 p.m., the last public meeting of its 71st (online) session. The Committee would adopt its concluding observations regarding the report of Belgium, which was considered during the session.

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UNOG Bi-weekly press briefing 30 July 2021 / 1:00:23

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