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Global action is needed to stop the unfolding famine in Tigray

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People are starving in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region as the world passively watches.

The heart-wrenching images emerging from Tigray depict a crisis of monumental proportions as famine, caused by war and the failure of crops due to drought, locusts, and unseasonal rain, tightens its grip on the region.

With over 90 percent of Tigray’s population facing a lack of food, Getachew Reda, the regional administration interim head, has warned that the worsening humanitarian crisis risks escalating to levels unseen since the 1984 Ethiopian famine unless immediate measures are taken.

Reports from international humanitarian agencies and media outlets, local multisectoral assessments, and medical and academic journals reveal the extent of malnutrition, starvation, and devastation of health facilities that have created an imminent threat to millions of lives.

Tigray isn’t the only region affected, as Ethiopia’s Disaster Risk Management Commission (EDRMC) and Food Cluster reported on 10 January that four million people in drought-affected Tigray, Afar, Amhara, South Ethiopia, and South West regions urgently need food assistance.

However, the federal government hasn’t officially declared the crisis a famine, as this remains a highly sensitive word in Ethiopia.

After the Tigray Interim Regional Administration (TIRA) issued an urgent appeal on 29 December to avert the unfolding famine, the Ministry of Federal Communication Services responded by accusing the TIRA of irresponsibly politicizing the crisis.

This caused Tigray authorities to accuse the federal government of denying the extent of the humanitarian crisis, pointing to statements by the commissioner of the EDRMC saying that the food crisis in northern Ethiopia regions hasn’t reached famine levels and is under the control of the federal government.

Deteriorating Conditions

The genocidal war on Tigray that the Ethiopian government and its allies waged using a lengthy and comprehensive siege officially ended in November 2022 with the signing of a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in Pretoria, South Africa.

During the war, hundreds of thousands lost their lives in Tigray owing to combat, massacres, starvation, and denial of essential services. Widespread crop failures owing to drought and unseasonal rain have since prolonged the crisis, causing the haunting specter of famine to cast a long shadow over the resilient people of Tigray.

The famine in Tigray is exacerbated by the ongoing war and drought in neighboring Amhara region, and the capacity of humanitarian agencies to respond effectively has been strained by other crises in the region, notably in Sudan.

Adding salt to the wounds are the Ethiopian government’s denial that what’s happening constitutes a famine and the months-long discontinuation of international humanitarian aid.

Mekelle, Tigray; November 2023; Goyteom Gebreegziabher

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and World Food Programme (WFP) halted their food assistance operations in April 2023, putting an end to a brief period after the ceasefire in which robust levels of food aid were finally making their way into Tigray.

This suspension was the result of a USAID investigation showing evidence of systematic diversion and theft of aid supplies, including by high-ranking regional and federal government officials. By the time USAID announced it was resuming aid distribution in December, its decision had resulted in deaths from starvation as well as widespread hunger and malnutrition.

The innocent people of Tigray shouldn’t be forced to pay the price for the malfeasance of corrupt public officials, especially as they recover from a devastating war and famine deepens.

Perilous Situation

The unfolding famine in Tigray is not confined to isolated pockets; it engulfs entire communities across the region. From the urban centers to the remote rural landscapes, the crisis permeates every facet of life and has stretched the limits of humanitarian response efforts.

Data on the multisectoral seasonal emergency needs assessment undertaken in the Tigray region of Ethiopia; 21 Nov – 8 Dec 2023.

According to a recently released multi-sectoral assessment conducted by the regional and federal governments, UN agencies, and international and national non-governmental organizations, there are 36 weredas in five zones (excluding the two zones partially occupied by Eritrean and Amhara forces), 213 tabias, and, in total, over a million people suffering from severe drought in Tigray.

The people of Tigray have shown their resilience to repeated famines over the years. For some, this would be the fourth famine in their lifetime. Often supported by Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), access to irrigation, agricultural intensification services, new road connectivity, and local improvements in access to water, food, and services were enhanced.

All this progress has been halted due to the war.

Before the war, there were over one million people who received support through the PSNP. The number of those in need has since increased to over 4.5 million with the addition of 940,000 internally displaced people and 2.5 million new cases of Tigrayans in need of assistance.

Tigrayan officials estimate that more than half of Tigray’s six million people urgently need food aid, and that existing aid is only helping around one-fifth of those in need. According to the international famine classification, much of Tigray is soon expected to have fallen into IPC phase four (emergency), and could eventually fall into phase 5 (catastrophe).

The crisis has led to severe food shortages, displacement, and a breakdown of essential services, a confluence of factors that, as of last September, had resulted in at least 1,400 deaths, while 816 people reportedly died of hunger in November and December, and, this month, it was reported that more than 200 people had starved to death in Edaga Arbi town and another 16 in Adwa.

The Lancet published research that highlights the alarming increase in malnutrition rates among children in Tigray, with severe acute malnutrition reaching unprecedented levels that will leave lasting consequences on their physical and cognitive development.

Mother with children; Tselemti, Tigray; 1 November 2023; Baraki Wedi Ale.

The critical shortage of medical supplies and personnel in the region has exacerbated the health crisis. Hospitals and healthcare facilities are overwhelmed, and the lack of access to essential medical care is resulting in avoidable deaths.

The unfolding famine is also disrupting schooling in Tigray, causing schools closed for three years due to the war that had reopened only recently to once again shut their doors to students. According to a statement released this month by the TIRA Education Bureau, over 222,000 children in 625 schools are at risk of dropping out of school.

Other studies have shed light on the widespread displacement of communities in Tigray, which has led to disrupted livelihoods and limited access to food and essential services.

Call to Action

Given the urgency of the situation, we put forward the following recommendations:

  1. Immediate humanitarian aid: The Ethiopian government must facilitate immediate and unrestricted access to humanitarian organizations to deliver life-saving aid, including food, medical supplies, and support for essential services. USAID and WFP must fully resume and intensify their food assistance operations as soon as possible, especially for the most vulnerable and hard to reach populations.
  2. International pressure: Regional actors and international organizations must engage in diplomatic efforts to persuade the Ethiopian government to acknowledge the famine, cooperate with humanitarian efforts, and address the root causes of the crisis.
  3. Rehabilitation of healthcare infrastructure: Humanitarian agencies must prioritize the provision of medical aid and personnel to address the health needs of Tigray’s population. Assistance should be directed towards rebuilding and reinforcing the healthcare infrastructure in Tigray to ensure adequate medical care for the affected population.
  4. Sustainable solutions: Efforts should focus not only on addressing the immediate crisis but also on implementing sustainable, long-term solutions. This includes ensuring the safe return of displaced communities to their homes, providing support for agriculture, enhancing existing social protection measures such as the PSNP, and supporting initiatives to build resilience against future shocks.

The unfolding famine in Tigray demands an immediate, coordinated, and evidence-based response from the international community.

By leveraging insights from scientific journals and humanitarian agencies, as well as local authorities and community knowledge, we can formulate targeted strategies to mitigate the scope and impact of the current humanitarian crisis, and work towards a more secure future for the people of Tigray.

Forty years ago, nearly one million people died due to famine in Ethiopia. The deepening famine today could ultimately rival those of the past in Ethiopia.

In 1984, global agencies and celebrities stepped up to raise awareness and galvanize support for Ethiopia. Currently, the world is preoccupied with the wars in Gaza and Ukraine at the expense of what is happening in Tigray and other parts of Africa. The communication blockade during the war and continuing restricted media and cellphone coverage have also not enabled disseminating information in real time.

Time is of the essence. The world cannot afford to be a silent witness to the suffering unfolding in Tigray.

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Main Image: Woman in field; Mekelle, Tigray; November 2023; Goyteom Gebreegziabher (Twitter: @Goyteom37)

This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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About the author

Mulugeta Gebregziabher

Mulugeta is a Professor of Biostatistics and Vice Chair for Academic Programs at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and President of Peace and Justice For Tigreans International. He has done research on public health, global health and war prevention in Tigray and other parts of the world. He is a recipient of The Victor Sidel and Barry Levy Award for Peace for his outstanding contributions to preventing war and promoting international peace. Follow him on Twitter @ProfMulugeta.

About the author

Patrick Wight

Patrick is the Executive Editor at Ethiopia Insight and a lecturer at Okanagan College in Kelowna, British Columbia. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Development from the University of Guelph, Canada. He spent 18 months in Ethiopia between 2014 and 2019 while researching the South Sudan peace process.

About the author

Lyla Mehta

Lyla Mehta is a Professor at the Institute of Development Studies and Norwegian University of Life Sciences. She has done occasional research on water and sanitation issues in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia since 2006. She can be followed on twitter at @Lyla Mehta and Mastodan @Lylamehta@mas.to

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