6 Tough Questions We Need to Ask About the Famine in Tigray

Since November 2020, millions of civilians in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray have faced harrowing violence, the loss of their homes and livelihoods, and now, increasingly, face extreme food insecurity leading to widespread famine conditions. 

On June 4, the UN’s Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) system that determines food security identified 354,000 people experiencing starvation, or famine in Tigray. USAID increased that to as many as 900,000 people on June 26, 2021. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET), created by USAID in 1985 amidst the last great famine in Ethiopia, reported that 5.5 million of the region’s 6.2 million people were critically food insecure. That number includes people who are now experiencing famine.

Since then, a near total blockade put in place by Ethiopian military forces as they departed the battered region has allowed less than 500 relief trucks to enter the region, despite the UN stating that 100 trucks are required per day. Now, in the 51 days since the blockade was put in place, the number of trucks required is at least 5,1000. Given the extreme shortage of relief assistance entering the region, one must assume that the number of people needlessly suffering from hunger and starvation is far higher today.  

To better understand Tigray’s famine, we ask six tough questions:

1. What does famine mean?

Famine is defined as severe and prolonged hunger in a substantial proportion of the population, resulting in widespread and acute malnutrition and death by starvation and disease.  There are three measures that define famine conditions:

  • 20 percent of a population being in extreme food insecurity;
  • two people for every 10,000 dying each day from starvation or related illnesses; and
  • two people for every 10,000 dying each day due to outright starvation or the interaction of malnutrition and disease.

FEWSNET confirmed the first criteria have been met in Tigray. On August 9, UNICEF reported at least 160,000 children in famine conditions in Tigray, a 385 percent increase in just three months. The blackout of communications for Tigray renders data collection near impossible to tabulate mortality, but the situation was so desperate in June that a government official in Tigray described people as “falling like leaves.”  

The bottom line is that people in Tigray do not have enough to feed themselves or their families. 

2. Why is this happening?

When Ethiopian Defense Forces (ENDF) and Eritrean Defense Force (EDF) withdrew from much of Tigray in late June, they severed the primary and secondary aid routes into Tigray, forcing the aid community to a tertiary route via the region of Afar on a much smaller and difficult route.

Banking was closed, preventing access to money to purchase food. Communications were cut, denying people trapped inside Tigray from telling their families they were alive. And civil commerce was denied, collapsing markets or fuel for electricity. The region’s 2.2 million internally displaced people are among Tigray’s most desperate, facing hunger, lack of medical care, dire sanitation, and inadequate housing that will prevent kids from attending school. Needs are also great for the 200,000 people to date who have been displaced by the Tigray Defense Force (TDF) military advances into Afar and Amhara.

Since the end of June, both the government of Ethiopia (ENDF) and the Tigray rebels continue to add conditions that prevent progress towards a cease-fire and reject mediation efforts. These actions ignore the millions of people languishing on the brink of starvation in Tigray, and now those displaced in Amhara and Afar.

The people of Tigray are experiencing a pattern of collective punishment.

3. Why have humanitarian agencies gone silent?

Ethiopia has long been known among aid and development groups as having one of the most difficult working environments. Twelve aid workers have been killed since last November, and many are threatened on a regular basis. Ethiopia’s Charities and Societies Laws provide the government a potent tool to intimidate and weaken NGOs, including the issuance and duration of visas, communications, importation and customs clearance, and even the hiring of national staff. 

Since the war in Tigray broke out, three NGOs have had their life-saving operations suspended amidst accusations that advocacy on the crisis was “disseminating misinformation.” These suspensions come against a backdrop of government statements that accused the aid community of delivering weapons and equipment to rebel groups and were “fabricating facts and figures” in a campaign aimed at “disrespecting and defaming Ethiopia.”

Aid agencies are thus placed in the difficult position of having to keep quiet to maintain access to carry out life-saving activities. Advocacy in any form—including pressing the government and other actors to behave differently—may be frowned upon, if not outright dangerous, particularly for local staff.   As such it is incumbent upon organizations without local staff, such as Refugees International, to say what our field colleagues cannot. 

4. Is it too late to stop the famine?

It is never too late. Action today could save thousands or more. 

Famine has already set in for almost a million people in Tigray. But for millions more who are still at risk, this does not need to be their fate. The parties to this conflict can cease hostilities for the purposes of saving lives of their own people. The blockade can be lifted for relief workers to reach those in need before a repeat of the tragedy of 1984-85 famine that took the lives of as many as 2 million Ethiopians. The UN Security Council and African Union, the bodies enshrined with the responsibility to prevent threats to international community, can put the crisis on their formal program of work and demand action.

5. Why does this matter?

This famine is unique in that, despite the climactic fragility of the area, it is wholly created by conflict and is exacerbated by a blockade.  This conflict is defined by ethnic demonization, rampant allegations of violations of war crimes committed by all parties to the conflict, and overt threats to the aid community. Ethiopia, once seen as the rock of the Horn of Africa, is now a country with an estimated 110 million people that could produce mass displacement on a scale none of its neighbors could absorb.

6. What’s next?

Tigray needs an immediate ceasefire, and an end to the blockade so that full humanitarian access—most importantly food and medical supplies—can get in. Without this, the famine will grow. 

With the upcoming UN General Assembly, world leaders need to step up. They need to make Tigray a top priority. OCHA’s Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs will soon brief the Security Council on the situation in Tigray. This briefing needs to be public to ensure that members of the Security Council are on record on the crisis. Likewise, the United States will soon announce its review findings into possible war crimes committed in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.  This too should be released publicly, as it is an important step in holding all parties responsible for this tragedy accountable. 

Without public accountability at the highest levels, the famine will only worsen and thousands more people will die.

PHOTO CAPTION: A priest, who fled the violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, holds the Bible beside a window in a classroom at May Weyni secondary school, that turned in to a Internal Displaced People (IDP) camp in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 23, 2021. Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP) (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images.