Looming Mass Hunger: More Than 4.5 Million Need Emergency Food Aid in Ethiopia’s Tigray

A looming mass hunger crisis is added to an already-grim humanitarian situation as civilians bear the brunt of the costs of conflict

More than 4.5 million people, including 2.2 million IDPs need emergency food aid in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, according to the Tigray Emergency Coordination Center (ECC) meeting that convened in early January, a looming mass hunger crisis in a region where food security was already under threat, and where memories of famine that killed 1 million in past decades, linger.

After nearly two and a half months of fighting, the security situation in the Tigray Region remains “dire”, according to the UN, with millions left without adequate access to healthcare, food, and water. The government continues to block mobile network and internet access in the region, except for some areas in the south and west, making it difficult to obtain and verify information about the humanitarian situation on the ground.

Although the government permitted humanitarian access to some areas, bureaucratic hurdles and continued fighting has meant that humanitarian assistance has been limited.

“Humanitarian violations on both sides”

“People are dying because of starvation. In Adwa people are dying while they are sleeping,” said an official at the EEC meeting, reported the BCC. “Food and non-food items or other livelihoods are either looted or destroyed…if urgent emergency assistance is not mobilised hundreds of thousands might starve to death.”

Malnutrition was already on the rise in Tigray, due to Covid-19 and the “worst locust swarm in 25 years” in the Horn of Africa, which hit Ethiopia the hardest. Efforts to stop the swarm came to a halt in Tigray due to the conflict. The conflict also exacerbated the situation, due to the cut-off of supply routes and the disruption of harvest season.

USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS) has classified most of Tigray as in “crisis” and parts as in “emergency” which is one step away from “famine” levels, due to limited access to food and income.

Starvation is only one of the catastrophes facing millions in the region: the conflict has resulted in millions of internally displaced persons, thousands of deaths, and nearly 60,000 people fleeing to nearby Sudan.

“We have received allegations concerning violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including artillery strikes on populated areas, the deliberate targeting of civilians, extrajudicial killings and widespread looting,” the UN  High Commissioner for Human Right said.

Human rights groups and journalists have reported ethnic and sexual violence toward Tigrayans by militias aligned with the government. Amnesty reported in November “that scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death” in a massacre likely committed by forces loyal to TPLF. The conflict has the potential to unravel and destabilise not only Ethiopia, but also other states in the Horn of Africa, like Eritrea and Sudan.

For weeks, Addis Ababa, which hosts the African Union headquarters, prevented aid groups from entering the area, maintaining that it was an internal matter. After weeks of pleading, international groups secured permission to enter certain areas in December. However, to this day, security concerns and bureaucratic obstacles have meant that the aid’s reach is limited.

This has not been overlooked by the international community.

Last week, the EU stated that it would postpone the planned €88 million (approximately $107 million) budget support until Ethiopia allowed access for humanitarian aid operators. “The situation on the ground goes well beyond a purely internal ‘law and order’ operation. We receive consistent reports of ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful returns of refugees and possible war crimes,” wrote EU foreign affairs Chief Josep Borrell in a blog post.

“The world needs Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and his government to live up to [his 2019 Nobel Peace Prize] – by doing all it takes to end the conflict. As an immediate first step, the Ethiopian authorities must comply fully with international humanitarian law and ensure that people in need get access to life-saving aid,” he continued.

The conflict in the Tigray region has been brewing since 2018, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came into office after decades of rule dominated by the semi-autonomous Tigray Region’s powerful Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ahmed pushed for reforms which the TPLF staunchly opposed. In 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed dissolved their party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF), and formed the Prosperity Party.

The falling out between the government and the TPLF spiralled into armed conflict on November 4, 2020, when Ahmed sent federal troops into the region in response to an TPLF attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force.

The weeks that followed witnessed violent clashes. The government declared victory after three weeks on November 28, saying what remained was the arrest of TPLF leaders and militants, and the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the region, yet sporadic fighting and insecurity continues to this day.

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