GENEVA - The World Food Program is renewing its appeal for unimpeded access to Ethiopia's northern province of Tigray, where an estimated four million people are suffering from acute hunger.
In a rare bit of good news, the World Food Program says the U.N. Humanitarian Air Service has transported 30 aid workers and urgently needed relief supplies for distribution across Tigray into Mekelle, the provincial capital.
The plane, which arrived Thursday, is the first passenger flight into the region in nearly a month. Commercial flights to Tigray stopped June 23. That was several days before Ethiopian authorities declared a unilateral cease-fire after eight months of deadly warfare. Tigray fighters quickly seized Mekelle and took control of the airport.
WFP spokesman Tomson Phiri says his agency, which manages the U.N. humanitarian air service, plans to operate twice weekly scheduled flights. That, he says will facilitate the regular movement of humanitarian personnel and light cargo into and out of Tigray.
"Now, whilst this is positive news, we also have some not so positive news," said Phiri. "The World Food Program is extremely concerned as the humanitarian response in the region continues to be challenged by a severe lack of sufficient food and other humanitarian supplies, limited communication services and no commercial supply chain."
Despite the challenges, the WFP has managed to deliver food aid to more than 730,000 people in parts of the south and northwest in the past month. Phiri says the WFP hopes to reach an additional 80,000 people in the northwest in coming days.
While that is commendable, he says faster, free, and unimpeded access is needed to reach millions of Tigrayans with life-saving food. He notes a U.N. food security analysis in June projected more than 400,000 people would be suffering from catastrophic levels of hunger starting in July.
"This is a conflict that is just over eight months old now. And people have not harvested," said Phiri. "The majority also failed to plant. They have no food left. Their grain stocks were looted. Others were displaced. Some even multiple times. And they are in bad shape and our teams are telling me that the situation is quite dire. You expect malnutrition rates to be quite high."
Phiri says the WFP aims to assist 2.1 million people at risk in Tigray. In the meantime, he says another WFP-led convoy of over 200 trucks carrying food and other essential supplies is on standby in Semera, the capital of the neighboring Afar region.
The WFP suspended aid deliveries along the Afar route after its convoy was attacked Sunday. Phiri says the trucks are expected to depart for Tigray as soon as security is assured.