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UN Geneva round-up: Taliban advances, Somalian food crisis, record temperatures in Europe

People waiting at the re-opened Chaman border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Taliban advanced on Kandahar, 13 August 2021. (Keystone/EPA/AKHTER GULFAM)

A summary of the most critical issues being discussed at the United Nations in Geneva this week.

Taliban gains ground. Taliban insurgents made further advances across Afghanistan on Friday after seizing another three major cities and sparking warnings from UN agencies of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.

Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the south and Herat in the west are the latest cities to be captured by the Taliban, in new setbacks for government troops who are largely fending for themselves following the withdrawal of US and foreign troops.

Escalating violence is driving thousands of people from their homes, with many fleeing rural areas to the Kabul province and other urban centres in search of shelter, UN officials said on Friday.

One in three Afghans are at risk for starvation, said Tomson Phiri, a spokesperson for the World Food Programme. “We fear the worst is yet to come and the larger tide of hunger is fast approaching...The situation has all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe," he added.

Some 400,000 civilians have been forced from their homes since the end of last year, joining the 2.9 million Afghans already internally displaced, Shabia Mantoo, spokesperson for the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) told reporters at a briefing in Geneva.

“We are particularly worried about the impact of the conflict on women and girls. Some 80 per cent of nearly a quarter of a million Afghans forced to flee since the end of May are women and children,” she added.

The UNHCR urged neighbouring countries to keep their borders open and grant refuge to civilians fleeing the intensifying crisis.

Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that OCHA will continue working in Afghanistan and will engage with all actors within the scope of its humanitarian mandate.

The rapid onset of Taliban forces comes just weeks before the US is set to completely withdraw, with embassies including the US and the UK now sending extra troops to evacuate their citizens. With just three cities still under control of the government, there are fears that a collapse of the country’s capital, Kabul, could be just days away.

WFP needs $79m for Tigray. The World Food Programme (WFP) said it is working to reach 1.6 million people who are suffering from food insecurity as continued fighting between government and Tigrayan forces and trouble accessing key transport routes and checkpoints severely hampers the delivery of aid.

Michael Dunford, the WFP’s regional director for Eastern Africa, told journalists on Tuesday that the organisation had already reached one million people in its second round of assistance – a major logistical operation which requires moving around 30,000 metric tons of commodities every month.

Taken together, the whole humanitarian effort to Ethiopia’s Tigray region needs 100 trucks to pass the checkpoints each day. “If you were to imagine what that looks like: It's a convoy of trucks moving up the road from Semera to Mekele over a range of five to seven kilometers,” Dunford said. The WFP will need a further $79 million to scale up efforts in the region through December.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR) said it has also been able to resume its work in the Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps in Ethiopia's Tigray region after violent clashes prevented staff from reaching the camps since 13 July.

Both the WFP and the UNHCR echoed calls made by the UN’s aid chief Martin Griffiths for humanitarian corridors to allow desperately needed aid to reach the country’s thousands of displaced people and those suffering from famine.

Food insecurity crisis in Somalia. One in four people in Somalia are living without a reliable source of food, the IFRC warned on Wednesday in an appeal for fresh funds to help with the country’s growing hunger crisis.

Desert locusts have devastated crops, and Somalia regularly faces extreme weather events. Life under the poverty line is a reality for 70 per cent of the population. Acute Watery Diarrhoea, measles, malaria and COVID-19 are compounding the crisis. The IFRC and the Somalian Red Cross Society are working to reach 563,808 people in Somaliland and Puntland by the end of next year and have issued a 8.7m Swiss franc appeal.

Armed groups’ sexual abuse in DR Congo.  Armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been carrying out horrific attacks on women and girls, the UN refugee agency warned on Friday.

Humanitarian partners in the DR Congo’s Tanganyika Province have received reports of 243 incidents of rape in the past two weeks, of which 48 incidents involved minors. The armed groups are fighting each other over the region’s mines and against the government, a continuation of three-year long conflict in the area.

Local authorities and humanitarian groups, together with the UNHCR and other humanitarian actors, are working to bring psychosocial and medical support to survivors. The UNHCR urged for higher security in the region to allow help to reach civilians and to better investigate the human rights abuses.

Record temperature in Europe. A temperature of 48.8° C in Sicily may be the highest on record for continental Europe, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Friday. Its record status is pending verification. Tunisia may also have a new record. The heatwave coincides with the release of the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC, which warns that climate change may make temperatures of over 50°C not far off.

Marburg virus in Guinea. Efforts are underway in Guinea to control an outbreak of the deadly Marburg virus disease after the first known case in the country and in West Africa was confirmed earlier this week. No vaccine exists for the disease, which can result in haemorrhagic fever with close to an 88 per cent death rate. The Guinean government and the World Health Organization are coordinating response efforts.