YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – During a visit this week to Ethiopia, the Administrator of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) visited food warehouses outside the capital Addis Ababa run by the Catholic Relief Services, with the help of USAID.
Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, denounced the “dehumanizing rhetoric” surrounding Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict, which has devastated the area.
Wednesday’s visit to Ethiopia has been welcomed by CRS’s Ethiopia country representative, Lane Bunkers.
“The compound in Adama [about 60 miles southeast of the capital] has a long history and has been in use for four decades for the purpose of storing and staging food aid, including humanitarian distributions,” he told Crux.
“Ms. Power and her delegation learned about the emergency food supply chain and how ships arriving in Port of Djibouti offload their cargo onto trucks which are then destined to one of four CRS warehouses and then onward to scores of community distribution points throughout the country,” Bunker said.
“Unfortunately, CRS is facing new challenges in delivering aid as the main road into Tigray has been rendered impassable due to the conflict,” Bunkers added.
“Prior to the closure of the Semera-Mekelle road, our teams had prepositioned a limited amount of food aid in Tigray, but now that the main access roads leading into Mekelle are not passable and we are at risk of running out of that stock of food in the coming week,” he said.
Bunkers spoke about the magnitude of the problems in Ethiopia and Tigray in particular, and how CRS is working to help.
Following are excerpts of that interview…
Crux: The U.S. top aid official, Samantha Power, visited Ethiopia to “press for unimpeded humanitarian access to prevent famine in Tigray and meet urgent needs in other conflict-affected regions of the country.” What is your response to this development?
Bunkers: We were pleased to host Administrator Power during a visit to our main warehouse compound in Adama on Wednesday. The compound in Adama has a long history and has been in use for four decades for the purpose of storing and staging food aid, including humanitarian distributions. Ms. Power and her delegation learned about the emergency food supply chain and how ships arriving in Port of Djibouti offload their cargo onto trucks which are then destined to one of four CRS warehouses and then onward to scores of community distribution points throughout the country. The delegation toured warehouses on the compound, observed trucks loading food destined for Tigray, and learned about the rapid expansion of the CRS-led humanitarian food distribution project known as the Joint Emergency Operation Program.
CRS says it has “increased its efforts to deliver vital food aid.” How has CRS been able to increase aid in an atmosphere of conflict? Just how difficult is it getting assistance to those who need it in Tigray?
Catholic Relief Services has been working in Ethiopia since 1958 and we have often been called upon to provide vital food aid to people affected by drought, flooding, conflict and other factors. Over the years we have established an agile, rapid response aid pipeline that can deliver vast amounts of food quickly. The Joint Emergency Operation Program, funded by USAID, has long served as a valuable lifeline for highly food insecure people, not just in Tigray but across the country.
At the onset of the conflict, transportation was initially a hurdle we needed to overcome. To do so, CRS and our partners contracted hundreds of private trucks, created many new final distribution points and relocated experienced staff to areas where people are most in need. We adapted by transporting food directly from our Adama and Kombolcha warehouses to final distribution points using more than 840 forty-ton trucks from the private sector.
When conflict in Tigray first started displacing people in November of last year, we began to quickly scale up our operations. Within the first few months, we went from serving 250,000 people in Tigray to over 1.4 million by February, and 3.8 million by the end of March. We also doubled our usual ration amount, so the amount of food we are providing should last each person about three months. The rations we distribute include wheat, yellow split peas and vegetable oil. With support from USAID, we have continued to increase our capacity to deliver aid and are now providing life-saving food to more than 4,487,000 million people in Tigray. This represents more than 60 percent of the total emergency food aid being distributed in Tigray.
To ensure aid can be delivered safely, we are also supporting our partners to conduct risk assessments ahead of distributions to try and limit risks both for staff and aid recipients. This involves sending an advance team to assess the safety situation prior to transporting food to the site.
Unfortunately, CRS is facing new challenges in delivering aid as the main road into Tigray has been rendered impassable due to the conflict. Prior to the closure of the Semera-Mekelle road, our teams had prepositioned a limited amount of food aid in Tigray, but now that the main access roads leading into Mekelle are not passable and we are at risk of running out of that stock of food in the coming week. United Nations flights into the region have also been sporadic, and that is also limiting our ability to support staff and partners based in Tigray.
The UN has warned that more than 100,000 children could face starvation in the next year as a result of the fighting in the Tigray region. How would you describe the state of famine in the region today?
Given the logistical capacity of CRS and our partners, extreme hunger should be preventable provided that the routes we utilize to deliver aid remain open. If access were guaranteed, we could continue to scale up operations as needed to reach the people who are most in need. Aside from the food assistance, CRS also has other emergency assistance projects to be implemented. Unfortunately, many of these initiatives which are intended to provide transitional shelter or restore water and sanitation systems destroyed during the conflict have been hampered by the continuing insecurity. Recent estimates suggest that as many as two million residents from the Tigray region are internally displaced and in need of assistance in order to return to their communities and livelihoods.