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Beyond Tigray: Wielding Hunger as a Weapon in Ethiopia’s Civil War

Tigray is currently facing a complex humanitarian crisis. Aside from conflicts, there is an alarming increase in food insecurity and loss of livelihood, which prompted the United Nations (UN) to warn of escalating famine in Ethiopia within the coming few months. This would be the third great famine in Ethiopia since World War II. In the 1980s, Ethiopia saw the worst famine which caused 800,000 deaths. Today, the Tigray region pays the price of decisions of the conflicting parts which pushed hundreds of thousands into hunger that is expected to expand beyond Tigray due to conflict spillover into Afar and Amhara.  

Indicators of the Food Crisis in Ethiopia

The ongoing ten-month-old conflict in Tigray has exacerbated the alarming projections of acute food insecurity in Ethiopia. The situation is now catastrophic and is expected to get worse in the future. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis released in December 2020, indicated that just one month after the start of the conflict, there has been an estimated 8.6 million people facing high levels of food insecurity in Ethiopia, with 1.4 million people in Emergency situation (IPC Phase 4). However, a recent IPC analysis indicated that, between May and June 2021, this number has risen with about 16.8 million people estimated to be highly food insecure (IPC phase 3 and above).

Looking at northern Ethiopia, we find that even before the outbreak of the conflict, out of a total population of 6 million people in Tigray, 1.6 million people were in need of foreign assistance (including immigrants). In June 2021, the IPC analysis revealed that 5.5 people in Tigray and adjacent regions in  Afar and Amhara (61 percent of the region’s population) suffer from high levels of acute food insecurity, the largest part of whom are from Tigray (4 million), Amhara (1 million), and Afar (0.45 million). Of those, 3.1 million people are in Crisis (IPC Phase 3), 2.1 million people are in Emergency (IPC Phase 4), and more than 353,000 people are now assessed as being in Catastrophe/ Famine (IPC Phase 5), meaning they are in imminent danger of starvation –the highest number since the 2011 famine in Somalia, with the expectation that the situation will become worse within the coming months.

In parallel, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) published in July 2021, indicated that there is a total of 23 hunger hotspots around the world, with Ethiopia coming second in terms of the level of acute food insecurity, with about 16.8 million people estimated to be highly food insecure of whom 12.1 million are in Crisis (IPC Phase 3), 4.3 million in Emergency (IPC Phase 4), and about 400,000 in Catastrophe/Famine (IPC Phase 5).

In addition, the UNICEF has estimated that 56,000 children under the age of five in Tigray will need treatment this year from life-threatening severe acute malnutrition, with an expected 10-fold increase in the number of children who will suffer from life-threatening malnutrition in Tigray over the next 12 months.

The situation is exacerbated by the severe damage to healthcare system and health facilities that have been looted and water infrastructure that has been destroyed resulting in a severe scarcity of potable water which could lead to disease outbreaks, exposing malnourished children to the increased risk of death.  UNICEF’S data also indicate that nearly half of pregnant and breastfeeding women suffer from acute malnutrition.

However, these estimated figures –which are based on the limited data available on the situation in the conflict area– are short of reality and the real situation might be dramatically worse.  

Causes of Ethiopia’s Food Crisis Exacerbation

Many inhabitants of Ethiopia are facing a food security emergency, with the level of need reaching its highest level since 2016, driven by a combination of factors which we detail as below:

1. Internal Conflicts

Historically, armed conflict or political repression has remained the leading cause of three-quarters of world famines in the past 70 years. Similarly, Ethiopia’s internal conflict has been the main driver of the food security crisis in northern Ethiopia and the basic catalyst for other factors. The increase of internal conflicts in Ethiopia since late 2020 has led to a widespread decline in households’ access to food and income, particularly in Tigray, Amhara, and Afar.  The conflict has also given rise to high levels of violence, loss of livelihood, displacement, destruction of the infrastructure, including water stations, health facilities, and schools, destruction of agriculture and livestock inputs, and looting of food aid. This led to insufficiency of food available to the population and exacerbated the pre-existing food crisis. Moreover, restrictions on movement in some areas of conflict impeded access of the population to food distribution points and made it difficult for the aid to reach them.

2. Growing Displacement Rates

Ethiopia’s long-running conflict (which started in November 2020) has resulted in the internal displacement of more than two million people, with an estimated 1.7 million displaced from Tigray alone, having fled their homes, leaving behind most of their assets and livelihoods. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the majority of internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in Tigray depend primarily on donations from host communities. However, due to movement restrictions and disruption of humanitarian assistance to some regions, over half of IDPs sites didn’t benefit from food distribution, which exacerbated the food crisis. In addition, the insufficient distribution of food forced IDPs to sell non-food items from aid organizations to buy food and other basic commodities.

3. The Economic Downturn

For over a year, Ethiopia’s macroeconomic environment has shown signs of marked deterioration, driven by the decline in exports and foreign reserves due to the high government spending in the past few years. This has caused the inflation rate to increase to 19.2 percent in April 2021, with a continued depreciation of the Ethiopian birr which lost 25% of its value in less than a year. The conflict in Tigray, Oromia, and Amhara has also disrupted local production which, together with the unavailability of imported products, resulted in a decrease in supply and increases in prices of basic foodstuffs. For instance, rice prices in Tigray have increased by more than 100 percent compared to pre-crisis levels and increases in fuel prices amounted to around 1,000 percent. This brought a reduction in the purchasing power of many households and left them unable to meet their basic food needs and more vulnerable to food insecurity than before.

4. Losses of the Food Production Sector

According to the USAID, Ethiopia’s economy is dependent on agriculture which accounts for 40 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), 80 percent of Ethiopia’s exports, and about 75 percent of total workforce. The start of the conflict in Tigray coincided with the commencement of the harvest season, which led to loss of an estimated 90 percent of the 2020 harvest, as armed groups sabotaged farms and looted any food stocks that came their way. Before the outbreak of the conflict, it was estimated that 80 percent of the region’s population relied on agriculture as a primary source of income and food. However, as of May 2021, about 80 percent of households either had no food stocks or had stocks enough only for May.

This could be partially attributed to harvest loss, looting, conflict-related destruction, unavailability of agricultural inputs due to closure of interstate borders, sabotage of stores and warehouses, and large scale looting and killing of livestock. In some parts of the western and central regions of Tigray, an estimated 80-90 percent of all livestock –an important source of income and food for the population– have been looted. Since the majority of households depend on subsistence farming for their livelihood, the loss of their crops and the inability to access production inputs have severely affected their food security and nutrition.

Despite improved rainfall in July, the region is unlikely to benefit from the agricultural season this year due to late rains, exodus of livestock in search of pasture and water, loss of livestock, lack of seeds, poor access to agricultural services, and the escape of many agricultural workers from the area to survive their lives. Consequences of a bad harvest in 2021, following that of 2020, could be devastating for food security, where most households depend on their production for food and income. If immediate support for agriculture is not provided, the next harvest will be within 18 months which will exacerbate the food crisis in the region.

Combined, these drivers have led to a reduced access to food for many poor households, leaving millions unable to meet their basic food needs. Consequently, urgent action is needed to end conflicts, scale up humanitarian assistance, and permit unhindered access of food, water, and medications, to avoid severe consumption gaps and related high levels of acute food insecurity.

The Wavering International Response to Ethiopia’s Use of Starvation as a Weapon of War

In a bid to force the Tigray forces to retreat, the Ethiopian forces deliberately targets food stocks and agriculture machinery, to ensure hunger will persist the next season in Tigray. Denial of humanitarian access to Tigray was another effective tool Ethiopian forces used. In May 2021, the UN recorded 129 incidents of obstruction of delivery of humanitarian aid by the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces and allied militias, compared to only one case by the Tigray forces. This is a clear violation of the UN Resolution 2417 of 2018, which explicitly condemns the use of starvation as a method of warfare and denial of humanitarian access to civilians and empowers the UN to impose sanctions on individuals and entities that obstruct humanitarian operations

Meanwhile, many international reports avoid describing the food security situation in Ethiopia as a “famine” and refer to it as a “disaster” instead, warning that large parts of Tigray are at risk of starvation within the coming months. To categorize a situation as a “famine” requires availability of accurate data which isn’t the case for Tigray. This makes it clear that such classification is highly politicized.  To avoid a “famine” classification, governments tend to hide data or manipulate it to achieve their goals and reduce the severity of hunger, taking the classification down to “emergency” or “crisis” levels whereas, in reality, people may be still dying, although at a slightly lower rate.

While a declaration of famine in Tigray will not impose any binding obligations on the UN and its member states, it, however, will draw international attention to the problem. Whether it is called “famine” or “genocide” doesn’t really matter; what matters is the consequences which are as horrendous as the worst crimes. Hunger is a cruel way to die. A malnourished body consumes itself to generate enough energy to sustain life. What is horrific about famines is that children become the first to succumb. Generally, children account for two-thirds of those who die in a famine.

However, regardless of the characterization of the situation in international reports, high and critical levels of food insecurity and widespread malnutrition in northern Ethiopia in general and in Tigray in particular have prompted many relief and international organizations to provide urgent food and humanitarian assistance to the population of the area affected by the conflict. However, aid organizations continue to report significant challenges that prevent them from accessing the area and providing life-saving assistance to more than 5.2 million people in desperate need of support.

Nonetheless, the humanitarian response remains inadequate to meet the rising aid needs. Currently, the region needs between 500 and 600 trucks of relief items (food, non-food items, and fuel) every week, whereas delivered aid represented only 10 percent of the total aid needs. Several factors contribute to this gap, including restrictions on access whereas all main access routes between Tigray and Amhara remain closed due to insecurity and restrictions related to the ongoing fighting, fuel shortages, power outages, damage to water networks, lack of spare parts and equipment to repair or maintain waterworks, and lack of funding. The Northern Ethiopia Humanitarian Response Plan faces a significant financing gap of $364 million till the end of 2021. 

At the moment, the international response fails to meet the growing needs for aid. According to reports, reality on the ground indicate that humanitarian workers face a constant stream of bureaucratic delays, demands for additional approvals, and insurmountable restrictions on entry. For example, aid workers on a UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) aircraft that arrived in Mikelle on 22 July were not allowed to carry more than $225 (an amount that isn’t enough to cover their personal expenses) or basic medications for malaria, heart, and diabetes and painkillers, causing some of them to miss the trip. Likewise, the Ethiopian military is blocking aid workers from reaching deep into rural areas, accusing them of aiding the “rebels”.

Given these delays and restrictions, humanitarian aid cannot reach the scale required to meet the vast needs. Moreover, visas are not extended to all relief workers. While the UN personnel and some partners of large international NGOs can extend their visas for three months to operate in the area, requests for visa extensions from other partners are denied. News of harassment, intimidation, detention of aid workers, confiscation of humanitarian supplies, and attacks on aid workers are reported where 14 aid workers lost their lives while providing assistance to others of whom three Doctors without Borders (MSF, Medecins Sans Frontieres) employees were brutally killed on 24 June. In addition, humanitarian workers need electricity, communications, drains, and fuel to carry out their life-saving work.

Relatedly, while the UN says the distributed aid has reached 2.8 million people, other reports indicate that only 13 percent out of the 5.2 million people in need have received assistance, noting that the aid provided is not enough to feed a household for 10 days. Other reports indicate that aid unloaded from trucks get stolen by fighting forces before it is distributed to civilians in need.

In conclusion, there are still restrictions on humanitarian access to Tigray, and the crisis is unlikely to be brought promptly to an end, given the widening conflict and its spillover to neighboring regions. However, the critical food situation in Tigray requires rapid measures to reverse the nutrition, health, and food security disaster and an increase in humanitarian and food aid is needed. This, in turn, means that humanitarian organizations must be allowed to carry out relief operations without deliberate hindrance to salvage what they could. Finally, humanitarian aid remain, nevertheless, futile in the long term if no radical solutions to the conflict are put forward, particularly with the food crisis spilling over into other regions beyond Tigray.

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