Famine looms over northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region as civil war re-escalates

With seasonal rains on the horizon, the one chance to avert a full blown famine in Tigray and parts of neighboring Amhara and Afar, already reeling under a severe food shortage, may be lost if the fighting does not cease

July 17, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
Tigray conflict Ethiopia
(Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP)

With the re-escalation in fighting in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region this week, the risk of a full-blown famine in the country’s fifth most populous State of six million people looms large. The conflict at the onset of seasonal rains could deprive farmers of arguably the last chance to plant crops for this season. Due to the loss of 90% of the harvest when the civil war erupted last winter, over 87% of the households are estimated to have used up their stocked food produce by the beginning of June. 

“Many farmers have been stripped of productive assets like seeds, animals, or tools due to looting, or saw their sources of credit disappear and seed markets disappear. As a result, local food production has been brought to a virtual standstill,” said Rein Paulsen, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Director of Emergencies and Resilience.

“A Risk of Famine exists, and Famine could occur in the following months if the conflict further escalates or if, for any other reason, the planned delivery of humanitarian assistance is hampered,” states the latest report of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), Acute Food Insecurity Analysis, published last month.

During the months of May and June, 4.1 million of the 5.8 million people surveyed (70%) were suffering from “acute food insecurity” (IPC Phase 3 or above). 353,000 of them, or 6% of the surveyed population, had already been classified to be under ‘Catastrophe’ (IPC Phase 5) – reeling under a full blown famine. Most of these victims are “concentrated in North Western clusters, Central clusters, and Eastern clusters”, where a third of the households have barely had a meal a day during this period. 

1.8 million people, or 31% of those surveyed, are classified under ‘Emergency’ (IPC Phase 4) – at risk of facing a famine with the slightest shocks. 1.9 million people, or another 34%, suffer a level of food insecurity classified as ‘Crisis’ (IPC Phase 3). 

This crisis in Tigray has unfolded despite considerable aid distribution since the beginning of this year, reaching 1.9 million people in January, 2.8 million in February, 4.9 million in March, and 3.4 million in April. However, these efforts were able to provide for the energy needs of only two-thirds of the households. 

While the number of areas inaccessible due to fighting significantly declined since May, fresh fighting erupted in June. On June 28, the federal government unilaterally declared a ceasefire and withdrew its troops. The federal government troops had been deployed since November 2020 to unseat the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from the Tigray State government after the latter’s forces attacked a federal army base in Tigray’s capital city, Mekelle.

The TPLF was the dominant political force in the country before being marginalized to a regional power with the rise of Abiy Ahmed as a reformist prime minister on a wave of pro-democracy protests in 2018. The TPLF, having vowed to regain control over Tigray, marched into Mekelle the same day as the federal troops withdrew. By June 30, the TPLF had sieged other major towns including Adigrat, Adwa, Axum and Shire.

After recapturing much of the territory it had retreated from when the federal troops had poured in, on July 12 and 13, the TPLF’s forces fought the militias of the neighboring State of Amhara in a bid to regain control of the fertile southern and western regions of Tigray. 

Conflict expanding

Fighting alongside the federal army against the TPLF, the Amharan militias had gained control of this region, long claimed by the Amhara State and inhabited by people of both Tigrayan and Amharan ethnicity. The National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), the dominant regional party of this second-most populous Ethiopian State, has called on the regular and irregular Amharan militias to mobilize to the front.

This expansion of the conflict into Amhara will exert a heavy toll, given that a million people in this State are already facing a food crisis in North Gondar, North Wello and Waghimra administrative zones, which together have a population of around 2.5 million. About 234,000 people here (10% of the population) were already on the verge of famine in May and June, classified under IPC Phase 3 ‘Emergency’ in the report. 

On Wednesday, July 14, the federal government indicated that it would end the ceasefire and re-engage the TPLF to stop its advances. Thus, the glimmer of hope of de-escalation appears to be ending in only two weeks, reigniting the fighting which has displaced over two million people, or a third of the State’s population, over the course of eight months.   

Given the damage to infrastructure and loss of harvest, much of the farming community is incapable of planting seeds and reaping a harvest without external aid, FAO warned on Monday, July 13.

“Due to insecurity, the vast majority of services linked to agriculture and livestock are no longer functioning. Agricultural inputs are not available due to outlets’ closure and most of the warehouses were vandalised. Seeds are poorly available and experts reported that very few livestock drug dealers are open in major towns,” the IPC report states.

“The rural communities who play a critical role in keeping northern Ethiopia fed, urgently need support if they are going to manage to get seeds in the ground ahead of the impending short rains. Each seed they plant represents a brick in a firewall against famine,” Paulsen said. “But to get them those seeds, we need more financial support and improved access,” he added. 

The UN body reiterated its appeal for funding of at least $30 million to secure food for 1.2 million people in the region. Only $6.2 million has been committed so far. The organization intends to distribute seeds for cereals and vegetables and poultry kits. However, any fresh fighting will disrupt the distribution, as well as the planting and cultivation of seeds.

The IPC report, which is based on consultations with the Ethiopian government, had expected that in absence of a major escalation, “the level of access will allow to scale up the delivery of assistance from 37% to 60% of the population.” Even then, the report projected that the percentage of people suffering from a food insecurity crisis in the war-affected region – Tigray and parts of the neighboring States of Amhara and Afar – will increase from 61% of the population in May-June to 74% in July-September, pushing another 50,000 people into famine.

Due to the fresh round of fighting, “should projected rates of assistance not materialize, a higher number of people would slide into the more severe IPC Phases, and the risk of Famine would increase,” the report said. 

In this grim situation, a high level of cooperation between the Ethiopian government and international agencies is needed to mitigate the unfolding humanitarian disaster. However, the trust required to foster such a degree of cooperation is jeopardized by the government’s skepticism of these agencies’ neutrality in the conflict. 

This skepticism is beginning to turn into mistrust, in no small part as a result of the diplomatic positions taken by the US and the EU, whose actions are perceived in Ethiopia outside Tigray as an international attempt to rehabilitate the TPLF that dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before the pro-democracy protests in 2018.