The Cruelest of Fates: Famine in the Time of War in Tigray


On June 28, the Ethiopian government declared an immediate and unilateral ceasefire after Tigrayan troops retook the regional capital Mekelle. The announcement came following more than eight months of devastating war. While it is a welcome development, the humanitarian situation remains catastrophic, and many of the parties to the conflict continue to maneuver on the battlefield. In addition, the Tigrayan Defense Force (TDF) has not agreed to the proposal. As such, this proposal must be immediately met with an absolute freeze in fighting, unfettered access for aid groups, and a relief effort commensurate with catastrophic humanitarian situation on the ground.

Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray is now experiencing its second man-made famine in living memory. The first famine in 1984–85 saw 2 million people die of starvation and related diseases as a result of the disastrous counterinsurgency strategy of Ethiopia’s military government (known as the Derg). Today, nearly all of the 6 million people trapped in Tigray are in need of life-saving assistance, with their lives and livelihoods destroyed. Last week, the U.S. government warned that the number of people in famine conditions had climbed to 900,000. Nearly 2 million more are on the brink of famine.  

The intentional destruction of health facilities, factories, and food supplies and the pillaging of essential relief are strategic decisions taken to increasing human suffering, and it will take decades to rebuild. This catastrophic turn comes on the heels of horrific incidents of sexual violence, which point to rape being used as a weapon of war to destroy families and the social fabric of Tigray. Steady reports of mass killings continue to shock the world’s conscience.

In a crisis where international humanitarian law has been so flagrantly flouted—including protection from violence and human rights abuses, as well as ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches those in need—the protection of civilians remains of paramount concern. While all parties, including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (or Tigrayan Defence Force) bear some responsibility, the Ethiopian government forces, Eritrean Army, and ethnic Amharan militia shoulder a large part of the blame. To be clear, all allegations of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity require international investigation, and those responsible must be held accountable regardless of rank or affiliation.

The UN’s Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) report was released on June 4 by the U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Network (FEWSNET). It showed that more than 350,000 people are already facing ‘catastrophe’ (Phase 5) conditions, and more than 1.8 million people are in ‘emergency’ (Phase 4) across Tigray and adjacent regions, including the epicenter of the 1983-1985 famine of Wollo. Two weeks later, a UN field report stated, “Levels of food insecurity and malnutrition, which are already at catastrophic levels in some areas, will deteriorate further to the risk of substantial famine, if not addressed immediately.” On June 25, USAID Administrator Samantha Power announced that up to 900,000 people now faced famine in Tigray, describing the finding as “terrifying.”

There are three international benchmarks that define famine conditions: at least 20 percent of households face an extreme lack of food, at least 30 percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition, and two people for every 10,000 are dying each day due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease. In Tigray, this is a tragic reality. Famine is an extreme, highly lethal form of acute malnutrition that weakens the immune system, leaving the body susceptible to infectious diseases. But to be clear, when famine is declared people are already dying of hunger simply because the data used for that determination are already out of date. Famine is already happening today.

While it is hard to imagine a situation worse than famine, displacement and famine combined further exacerbate suffering. Displaced people are without the networks and coping mechanisms to help them survive longer. They are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and may be forced to compete for scarce resources, in some cases compelling negative coping behaviors such as survival sex. As the situation drags on, the displaced need access to livelihood opportunities and integration opportunities into host communities. 

The World Food Programme (WFP) and partners must deliver life-saving assistance to 5.2 million people, yet struggle to reach many areas of the region. While the food relief operation has reached 2.8 million beneficiaries, in many areas aid agencies cannot confirm that aid is getting to intended recipients.  The UN has registered more than 2 million displaced people within Tigray, though actual displacement is likely much higher, and some 63,000 have fled into neighboring Sudan. Health facilities are few and far between, with less than 25 percent of health facilities functional today. Limited access to water and sanitation also pose great risk for disease, forcing the World Health Organization (WHO) to initiate cholera vaccinations in accessible formal and informal camps for internally displaced people, host communities, and refugee camps in a desperate attempt to prevent the disease from spreading. 

Equally, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), like other operational organizations on the ground, must walk an advocacy tightrope in balancing speaking out versus ensuring access for its life-saving programs. Nevertheless, UNHCR continues to enquire as to the whereabouts of more than 20,000 refugees that went missing after two refugee camps were burned to the ground by Eritrean forces. 

An international aid operation in Tigray has been stood up, with 419 international UN staff and more than 1,000 NGO staff operating across the region, representing 70 international NGOs, 33 national NGOs, 11 UN agencies, and nine Ethiopian government offices. Restrictions on access are today effectively the same as three months ago in that many areas outside main towns or supply routes remain frequently inaccessible while the number of people needing help has only grown. Assistance is marooned in urban areas and moves only on main roads that connect them. In many areas, aid agencies cannot confirm that aid is getting to intended recipients. Looting and redirecting of relief continues to occur on a regular basis. 

This catastrophe has unfolded despite growing international alarm. Humanitarian actors, journalists, UN agencies, policymakers, civil society, and others, including world leaders at the recent G7 meeting, have spoken out against ongoing atrocities. The Biden administration has taken a tough line with Ethiopia, including high-level visits and demarches, aid freezes, and visa restrictions. Similarly, the EU and other states have taken a range of steps, including withholding foreign aid until humanitarian access is fully restored. Given the crisis, both the United States and European Union deployed Special Envoys—Jeffery Feltman for the United States and Pekka Haavisto for the EU.  

For months Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia has falsely denied responsibility for abuses and atrocities, prevented or delayed access, and denounced international outrage over this catastrophe. A unilateral ceasefire is clearly welcome, but all parties to the conflict must agree to allow humanitarian relief efforts to resume in full, and to scale up to meet the challenge. Eritrea has not agreed to respect the ceasefire, and the TDF has vowed to fight on. It is also unclear whether Prime Minister Abiy will remain true to his word.

For now, the situation on the ground remains highly dynamic, posing risks for the civilian population and severely curtailing relief efforts. Without an agreed ceasefire, Ethiopian military operations are likely to resume, perhaps with a greater reliance on aerial bombardment. Such bombardments have already taken a heavy toll on civilians, including the attack on an open-air market last week that reportedly killed at least 64 people and left at least 180 injured.

Time has run out for hundreds of thousands, and millions may be next. And as in the case of the catastrophic and government-induced famine of 1984–85, donor governments, international organizations, and NGOS will be powerless to stop it unless those involved in the conflict change course now. 

In any crisis, there must be a strategy that aligns ways and means like diplomatic pressure, sanctions, and aid freezes to achieve objectives. For Tigray, this strategy should also include pathways and benchmarks for an increase or reduction in both “sticks” and “carrots.” These benchmarks should carefully mirror the key steps that the Ethiopian government and other parties to the conflict must take in order to ward off famine. An incremental approach to addressing the crisis will squander the most valuable asset in a crisis: time. We must now do our utmost to prevent the worst-case scenarios of famine and prolonged tragedy in Tigray. To this end, key stakeholders should take the following steps:


First, the United States and European partners should spare no effort in helping to negotiate a full ceasefire. The terms of this ceasefire must enable the massive humanitarian operation required to meet the needs of burgeoning famine. The ceasefire should be supported through the deployment of an international verification team, such as the Eastern African Standby Force (EASF). 

Second, and in parallel, the U.S. and EU Special Envoys should form a diplomatic contact group of key donors and other partners to engage the African Union to press for its urgent involvement alongside the G7 and other states to build out a pathway towards a political process that includes the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amaharn forces, and balances Ethiopia’s sovereignty with the requirement to ensure the protection of civilians and delivery of famine mitigation assistance.

Third, the Ethiopian government must remove key obstacles to the famine relief effort. It must provide extended visas for humanitarian aid workers, open up major traffic arteries and communications in Tigray, allow relief groups to import communications equipment, and facilitate rapid customs clearances for emergency relief supplies. Continuing pressure from the United States and other donors on these issues will be essential, including at the most senior diplomatic levels.

Fourth, the United States should use the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) on the ground to provide broadly accessible weekly humanitarian updates with data on the state of famine and the relief response. The DART is uniquely placed to undertake these tasks as other operational organizations on the ground like United Nations agencies or humanitarian NGOs could jeopardize their limited access by speaking out.

Fifth, the U.S. government should ready further punitive measures on all parties to the conflict that will be taken should the situation continue unchanged. Immediate steps could include further restricting political ties, the withdrawal of development and security funding, weapons bans, and the freezing of assets of key individuals through the Global Magnitsky Act. 

Sixth, the United States and European countries should identify the conditions linked to humanitarian access and famine prevention under they which could begin to lift aid freezes and other punitive measures against the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments.

Seventh, all donors must work to fully fund the relief effort. The UN has requested $1.7 billion for the emergency relief effort. Yet that effort is only 40 percent funded. While USAID’s recent announcement of an additional $180 million is welcome, the United States is now funding almost 80 percent of the effort, and other donors must step up as well. This could be done by re-directing bilateral assistance and suspended development funding. 

Finally, given the relative silence from the UN Security Council, the United States should call for both the UN Security Council and the UN Secretary-General to make separate but sequenced trips to Ethiopia to review the humanitarian and human rights situation in Tigray and report back in an open forum.


About the Authors

David Del Conte is an independent consultant with over two decades of humanitarian experience with the United Nations and NGOs. He served as OCHA’s Deputy Country Director for Ethiopia from 2012-2016, including the 2015-2016 drought.

Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.

Sarah Miller is a senior fellow at Refugees International.

PHOTO CAPTION: A newly arrived 17-year-old man who fled the violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region eats ingera, Ethiopia’s staple food, in a classroom at May Weyni secondary school, which is now hosting 10,500 displaced people in Mekele on June 19, 2021. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)