NEW YORK - The U.N. humanitarian chief is warning that there is a serious risk of famine in northern Ethiopia's Tigray region if humanitarian assistance is not immediately scaled up.
"It is clear that people living in the Tigray region are now facing significantly heightened food insecurity as a result of conflict, and that conflict parties are restricting access to food," Mark Lowcock told the U.N. Security Council in a private note sent Monday and seen by VOA. "There is a serious risk of famine if assistance is not scaled up in the next two months."
Federal troops deployed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have been fighting forces of the region's former ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), since November. Thousands of people have been killed in the area where hundreds of thousands of people were dependent on food aid before the conflict began.
On May 17, an alert from the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) said central and eastern Tigray and some areas of the northwest and southeastern zones — some 3.3 million people — are in crisis levels of food insecurity. Some 20%, or 660,000 of them, are one step away from famine.
Lowcock said all 3.3 million people in those high-risk areas are being targeted to receive assistance. He urged the U.N. Security Council and other nations to take any steps possible to prevent a famine from occurring.
The U.N. aid chief said that humanitarian access overall has recently deteriorated in Tigray, despite improvements during March and the cooperation of authorities at the local level.
"Humanitarian operations are being attacked, obstructed or delayed in delivering life-saving assistance," he wrote. "Eight aid workers have been killed in Tigray in the last six months, including most recently a staff member for a local NGO who was distributing food."
He said that between November and April, his office received 98 reports of incidents relating to restriction of movement of organizations, personnel or goods in Tigray, with most incidents happening since March.
"Many humanitarian vehicles are turned back at checkpoints," he said. "In some cases, vehicles have been seized."
The Ethiopian government denies allegations it is obstructing aid access as "absurd." It said earlier this month that issues with reaching some remote areas because of the security situation had been addressed and that any remaining issues are due to capacity and resources.
Overall, an estimated 5.2 million people — or 91% of the population in Tigray — are in need of emergency food assistance, including an estimated two million displaced people. Aid workers have been able to reach only about 1.8 million people since late March.
The United Nations has appealed for $853 million to assist 5.2 million people until the end of the year, with almost $200 million needed before the end of July.