Ethiopia and the Tigray conflict. The humanitarian response on the brink of rupture

(B2) The conflict in the Tigray region has been going on for almost a year. The humanitarian situation is getting worse. Help only accesses it with difficulty. Humanitarian actors themselves have become targets. For the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), access to healthcare is the number one priority. Interview with Africa Regional Spokesperson, Alyona Synenko

  • B2 had taken the testimony of the ICRC just a few weeks after the outbreak of the conflict, in November 2020. (Read Ethiopia. Potentially explosive humanitarian situation with the conflict in Tigray (ICRC))
  • Since then, many humanitarian partners in Tigray have drastically reduced and/or halted their response programs due to lack of fuel, cash and supplies, the UN humanitarian agency notes, in a point of October 14.
  • The case of Ethiopia was discussed between the Foreign Ministers on Monday (18 October) in Luxembourg (article to follow).

There is talk of shortages due to restrictions imposed by the Addis Ababa government. What is the situation in the north of the country?

— Power and fuel shortages in Tigray are impacting all vital services, including water supply and healthcare. While power has been restored for a few hours a day in Mekele [the capital of the Tigray region] and Shire, there is no power in the rest of the region. Vital infrastructures, such as hospitals and water treatment plants, work with generators, without any regular fuel lines having been restored to date.

With longer term repercussions?

— Lack of electricity and fuel also leads to water shortages. Which could have a disastrous impact on public health, especially during a rainy season known to favor the spread of contagious and water-borne diseases such as cholera. This risk is particularly high for displaced people, who live in crowded conditions in temporary sites and with host communities. In rural areas, many hand pumps are not working and people do not have enough water for drinking, farming or basic household needs.

There are signs that military operations in the region could intensify. What do you know about the current living conditions of the inhabitants of the Tigray region?

— Shifting frontlines are forcing tens of thousands of newly displaced people in northern Ethiopia to flee their homes in search of safety. Not only do they suffer from the trauma of leaving their homes, but they also have to deal with growing insecurity. People displaced by the violence in the Tigray, Afar and Amhara regions are mainly found in the main cities, where they are hosted by host communities or in improvised sites, such as schools. They have few belongings and sleep in crowded shelters, schools, or even in the open, where they can be exposed to the cold in high altitude regions. Water, food, cash, fuel and electricity are very scarce, and displaced people are highly dependent on host communities, who often have few resources at their disposal.

What are the implications for other parts of Ethiopia, especially in the neighboring Amhara region?

— Supply chains have been disrupted. The lack of commercial traffic has had a serious impact on the availability of food, fuel, medical supplies and essential goods. In most parts of Ethiopia, we have seen a huge increase in food prices.

Do you still have a team in Mekele? What are the working conditions?

— Yes, we have teams in Mekele and Shire. It's a difficult and unstable environment to work in...

UN humanitarian personnel have recently been expelled. Staff from the NGO Doctors Without Borders were killed in June. In this context, what are your priorities and the most urgent humanitarian questions in your opinion?

— Improving access to healthcare is the absolute priority. In northern Ethiopia, particularly in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions, the ICRC supports referral hospitals and general hospitals to enable them to treat gun-wounded and maintain services essential medical. The health care system in conflict zones is under particularly heavy pressure. Medical centers not only have to deal with an influx of injured people but also with a more difficult security situation which endangers medical personnel working in hospitals or smaller health structures. In some of the areas most affected by the conflict, urgent medical supplies are not getting through. The result is a near total absence of health care services when people need them most. More vital supplies, including medical and food supplies, must reach Tigray to prevent this vast humanitarian crisis from worsening. If hospitals continue to operate without medicine, food and fuel, it will lead to preventable deaths.

(Comments collected by Emmanuelle Stroesser)

Interview conducted in English by email exchange, Friday, October 15, 2021

Read also on B2 Pro:

Ethiopia. Europe in an uncomfortable position (F. Massimo Castaldo) (June 2021)

The conflict in Ethiopia continues. Europeans call for dialogue (Borrell-Haavisto) (April 2021)

Ethiopia placed under war crimes watch. Europeans demand the withdrawal of Eritrean troops (March 2021)

The Ethiopian conflict is at an impasse. Only one solution: negotiate. Europe has a role to play (Pekka Haavisto) (February 2021)

Emmanuelle Stroesser

A journalist for magazines and the press, Emmanuelle specializes in humanitarian issues, development, asylum and migration and human rights.