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In-depth: Famine haunts Tigray, again; weak response, conflicts and drought threaten millions elsewhere in Ethiopia

Of the 6.6 million individuals in need of emergency food assistance, four million are located in the northern regions of the country, such as Tigray (Photo: Tigray TV)

By Zelalem Takele @ZelalemTakelee

Addis Abeba – As Ethiopia grapples with the aftermath of the devastating two years war in the Tigray region and ongoing militarized conflicts in the Amhara and Oromia regions, a new and insidious threat casts a shadow of darkness on millions: death by starvation.

Recent headlines paint a grim picture, revealing that the nation, already scarred by the loss of many lives due to war and conflicts, is now witnessing hundreds succumb to hunger, while the ominous specter of millions facing the same dire fate looms large.

The war in the Tigray region, compounded by what the UN termed as a de facto blockade, has already left a region of an estimated seven million people before the war in a state of devastation; the disruption in humanitarian aid supplies coupled with the devastating war that erupted just before the November harvest season in 2020 has shattered the livelihoods millions and resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians. This dire situation has been further compounded by on ongoing drought and locust infestations, placing an estimated 91% of Tigray’s population at risk of famine, once again.

Disturbing reports from the ground indicate that a considerable number have already succumbed to hunger.

Regional officials revealed that close to 400 people, including 25 children, have already succumbed to death by starvation in a single month in Tigray. The majority of these fatalities occurred within four districts.

The gravity of the situation has led local officials to draw parallels to the catastrophic famine of the mid-1980s. Recently, Getachew Reda, the president of the Tigray interim administration, has issued a stark warning of imminent “starvation and death” in the war-torn region.

In the Amhara region, specifically in the Waghimra and North Gondar zones, the severe drought, coupled with the ongoing conflict between government forces and non-state local militia called ‘Fano’, is causing a calamitous impact on the local population.

In November 2023, more than 20 individuals were reported to have succumbed to death by starvation in these two zones alone, and the livestock casualties exceeded 85,000. MorerRecently, the Amhara Disaster Prevention and Food Security Commission revealed that over 1.8 million people in the region urgently require assistance due to the ongoing drought.

Deresse Sahilu, the Rural Sector Cluster Coordinator and Head of the region’s agricultural bureau, cautioned that without prompt aid, further repercussions are anticipated.

Extending beyond Tigray and Amhara, various regions are currently contending with the impacts of the ongoing drought. In December 2023, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), a distinguished authority on acute food insecurity, issued a notable warning concerning the escalating predicament in Ethiopia.

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The Network anticipates a significant intensification of the country’s food insecurity challenges, placing a staggering four million individuals at risk of experiencing emergency hunger conditions. This distressing situation is foreseen to endure in five regions of Ethiopia until at least mid-2024, underscoring the imperative for immediate intervention.

Nevertheless, officials from the federal government have categorically refuted the alarming reports as unfounded. Last month, Shiferaw Teklemariam, the Commissioner for the federal government’s Disaster Risk Management Commission, issued a specific stern warning regarding the use of the term famine, particularly criticizing those who report on the crisis and refer to it as famine and reporting deaths due to starvation.

“The information that the drought has escalated to famine is unfounded and is being propagated by entities with hidden agendas,” the Commissioner told the ruling party-affiliated media.

More recently, the Communication Minister of the federal government, Legesse Tulu, spoke to government and party-affiliated media to counter the statement made by the president of the Tigray Interim administration, which he dismissed as “completely wrong.”

Regional officials like Getachew had previously drawn attention to the impending humanitarian disaster, likening it to the devastating famine of 1984/85.

In response, the federal government criticized the call, accusing regional officials of “politicizing the crisis,” “misappropriating” funds allocated for social and economic activities to “feed combatants,” and lacking the “moral ground to talk about the suffering of the people.”

In a statement issued earlier this week, the Ethiopian Institution of the Ombudsman (EIO) criticized the lack of coordination between the federal and regional governments in responding to the crisis. To illustrate this, the EIO highlighted the significant disparity in the number of drought victims reported by the federal and regional authorities.

While the federal Disaster and Risk Management Commission reported 2.2 million people affected by the drought in the Tigray region, the interim administration of Tigray asserted a much higher figure of 4.2 million people, including internally displaced persons (IDPs), affected by the crisis.

The EIO also observed that the identification of victims and the delivery of aid in the Amhara region lack synchronization between district and zonal authorities.

According to the EIO, the inadequacy of oversight mechanisms to ensure that the support provided by the federal government reaches the affected parties appropriately has led to international organizations lacking confidence in the system, thus exacerbating the crisis.

Victims speak out

Despite the accusations and assumptions, the firsthand experiences of individuals who have endured the impact of this crisis and become victims of this humanitarian disaster depict a stark reality that cannot be ignored.

One such individual profoundly affected by the ongoing drought is Sesen Siyum, a mother of two residing in Yechila Abergelle district in Central Tigray Zone. This area is currently grappling with a severe drought, resulting in devastating consequences, particularly for children and the elderly experiencing acute starvation.

I am constantly gripped by fear of hunger.”

Sesen Siyum, a victim of the ongoing drought

In an interview with Addis Standard, Sesen shared the heartbreaking story of her home being destroyed during the 2021 war in Tigray. Consequently, she now resides in a rented house in the district, grappling to pay rent and incapable of providing for herself and her children amidst the imminent danger and lack of financial support.

Formerly employed as a merchant, Sesen used to independently support her children. However, the aftermath of the war and the ongoing drought have rendered it increasingly challenging for her to meet their basic needs.

Bearing witness to the tragic deaths of children due to starvation, Sesen expressed deep concern for the dire situation, stating, “I am constantly gripped by fear that my children may suffer the same fate.”

She emphasized the urgent need for assistance and conveyed the gravity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in her district.

In addition to the dire circumstances, Sesen also highlighted her own health challenges, grappling with a chronic illness amidst hunger and distress. She underscored the critical need for humanitarian aid, emphasizing the devastating impact on both humans and animals in the region.

Muez Hagos, the public relations officer of Yechila Abergelle district, provided additional insights into the severe situation, emphasizing the escalating deaths and acute malnutrition among children and pregnant women. In the district alone, 27 individuals, including four children and four elderly individuals, have tragically succumbed to hunger.

The crisis extends beyond the central and southern parts of Tigray.

Alemne Abebe (name changed), a resident of Irob, located in northern Tigray, disclosed the dire hunger situation in the area. He lamented the deaths he has witnessed among children and the elderly due to starvation.

The people of Irob, a minority group in the Tigray region that shares a border with Eritrea, have been isolated from the rest of Tigray due to security concerns. Currently, four kebeles in Irob are under the control of Eritrean troops, making it challenging to provide and access public services and deliver humanitarian aid.

Alemne further revealed that the only assistance they receive comes from residents living in cities like Mekele and Adigrat who are relatively in better condition. Residents from other areas bring 30 to 40 quintals of Teff, which is the only thing sustaining them. However, in the four kebeles under the control of the Eritrean army, the situation is even more dire, with reports of multiple deaths from starvation and a lack of assistance.

Alemne expressed his disappointment with the assertion by the federal government’s official denying deaths from starvation, describing it as “inhumane.” He also called on the federal government and the global community to address the deteriorating situation.

The Interim Administration of Tigray has issued a pressing appeal to both the federal government and the international community, urging them to fulfill their ethical and legal obligations by promptly intervening to avert imminent starvation and the loss of human life.

Nevertheless, the response from the federal government has proven inadequate, resulting in the unresolved nature of the situation.

The drought has impacted more than 452,000 individuals across six districts in the North Gondar zone, including 104,000 minors as well as 14,000 mothers and expectant women (Photo: North Gondar Communications/Facebook)

At the end of last week, Selamawit Kassa, the State Minister of Government Communication Service, claimed that the Tigray region received 430,000 quintals of food aid and a cash handout of 238 million birr during the past six months of the current fiscal year, benefiting 1.6 million people in the region.

However, regional authorities, such as Getachew, expressed concerns about the insufficient response, indicating that 90% of the population in the region still requires food assistance.

According to Selamawit, during the initial six months of the fiscal year, the government disbursed 11 billion birr from its internal reserves and an additional 4 billion birr from external sources for the distribution of food aid to the vulnerable segments of society impacted by the ongoing drought.

The assistance included both tangible goods and financial support, with a total allocation of 1.7 million quintals of food aid and a cash disbursement of two billion birr. The recipients of cash disbursements are located across six regions, including Amhara, Oromia, Somali, and Dire Dawa.

Selamawit further disclosed that a demographic of 6.6 million individuals requiring emergency food assistance due to the effects of the drought has been identified thus far. Out of these, four million are situated in the northern part of the country.

According to the state minister, 9.2 billion birr is required to provide emergency food assistance for the identified population.

In Amhara, a region with more than two million people affected by the drought, the situation presents equal severity. In particular, the Waghimra and North Gondar zones have borne the brunt of the crisis.

Other local reports show that approximately 452,000 individuals have been impacted by the drought across six districts and 83 kebeles of the North Gonder zone. Among this population, 104,000 are minors, while 14,000 are mothers and expectant women.

Furthermore, a significant dearth of fodder has led to the suffering of approximately 140,000 animals in the zone.

The Waghimra zone mirrors a similar distressing scenario. According to a recent report by Addis Standard, six individuals have tragically perished due to severe famine in the drought-affected Sahala district of the Waghemra.

In a recent interview with Addis Standard, Mihret Melaku, the head of the Waghimra Zone Food Security and Disaster Prevention Office, delineated the situation as critical, elucidating that all crops have failed this year.

Mihret particularly emphasized the drought’s impact in the Ziquala, Abergele, and Sahala districts of the Waghimra Zone. He underscored that more than 180,000 individuals in these three districts alone face the brunt of the drought, while over 425,000 people across the zone require food assistance.

Mihret also highlighted persistent challenges in mitigating livestock losses, notably in Abergele and Sahala districts, where over 10,000 cattle have perished due to insufficient fodder and water.

During the recent press briefing, Selamawit mentioned that 388,000 quintals of food aid and 277 million birr in cash were provided to nearly two million people residing in the Amhara region.

Despite the allocation of relief funds by both federal and regional authorities, as well as private contributions, Mihret disclosed instances where certain individuals have not yet received any aid, even from the initial distribution within the zone.

“Moreover, those who did receive assistance will require further support within a month,” Mihret stated, emphasizing the urgent necessity for substantial assistance over the next 5 to 6 months.

Conflict, instability deepens the crisis

Regional officials, humanitarian agencies, and media reports indicate that the ongoing conflict in the Amhara region has exacerbated challenges in aid distribution.

Two months ago, an article published by Addis Standard highlighted a truck transporting edible oil and emergency food provisions that was rendered immobilized in Bahir Dar city due to the ongoing militarized hostilities, hindering access to the designated recipients.

Aid conveyance now heavily relies on support from the command post, leading to delays.”

Mihret Melaku, head of the Waghimra Zone Food Security and Disaster Prevention Office

According to this media report, an incident involving officials from the Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS) occurred, wherein a truck carrying edible oil and emergency food supplies destined for the Waghimra zone remained stranded in Bahir Dar city. As emphasized by ERCS officials, the conflict in the Amhara region had obstructed access to the designated destinations.

Mihret concurs with the media reports and remarks by humanitarian agencies, indicating that the ongoing conflict in the region has impeded the distribution of aid.

Mihret also underscored the particular challenges associated with aid transportation, especially via the Gondar route. He recounted past incidents wherein a vehicle transporting 230 quintals of grains was seized by what he described as ‘extremist’ forces.

“Aid conveyance now heavily relies on support from the command post, leading to delays,” he stated.

Despite numerous pleas and reports documenting fatalities, regional officials refute such assertions, stating “no one has died of hunger” in the region.

Recently, Tesfaw Batable, commissioner of the Amhara Region Disaster Prevention and Food Security Commission, categorically dismissed allegations of starvation-related deaths in the region. However, he acknowledged the substantial need for assistance, estimating that over two million people require aid in the Amhara region alone. AS

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