By Duke Burbridge
In week ten of “post-conflict” Tigray, food remains blocked from reaching families in Tigray who need it urgently. Around 1.7 million Tigrayans who have been identified as needing food assistance have not received any outside aid since well before the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities in Pretoria. Even as Western officials line up to congratulate the Ethiopian Prime Minister for reducing the scope of weaponized starvation in Tigray, the children of Tigray are starving, in isolation from the world, just hours down the road from warehouses of food.
Last week brought some positive news from Tigray, where according to the latest Food Cluster update, between 770,000 and 823,000 people received food for the first time in months, although last week’s Food Cluster Dashboard appears to contain a discrepancy. This brings the total reach of the current food distribution round in Tigray to 3.7 million people, 68% of those found to be in urgent need of food assistance by the World Food Programme (WFP). Despite promises of unhindered humanitarian access made by the Ethiopian government at the start of November 2022, restrictions on food and fuel persist.
Effectively, around half of the region has been reconnected to food assistance, at least for the moment. It is imperative that this food assistance be allowed to continue. After two brutal military occupations by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara regional forces and a two-year humanitarian siege, every zone of Tigray is experiencing extremely high levels of food insecurity, as shown in the chart below. (Note that the Western Zone of Tigray was not able to be covered in the food assessment.)
The problem is that the other half of Tigray was in even worse condition and the blockade is causing preventable deaths. Families who remained in or fled to areas under military occupation needed food distribution to start immediately after the signing of the cessation in hostilities agreement in November. More than a million Tigrayans have been displaced, in many cases with nothing. From all accounts, nearly every major population center in Tigray is teaming with families who have been forced to flee the military advance of the Ethiopian-Eritrean-Fano alliance. These households have been displaced multiple times, targeted for brutal violence, and have been intentionally resource deprived for the past two years.
Some made it to Mekelle, but most only made it to cities in the Northwestern and Central zone, which were once again under military occupation by October. Those who reached Mekelle had the best chance of receiving food assistance. However, those who fled to the Northwestern and Central Zones remained trapped behind a blockade for at least two months after the signing of the cessation of hostilities agreement. As the third chart shows, there is a stark difference between food distribution in the Central and Northwestern zones, which remains under Ethio-Eritrean occupation since prior to the peace agreement, and areas of Tigray closer to the capital. The result of this dynamic is that in areas where food insecurity was most severe, food distribution has been least prevalent.
Many of those who remained in or fled to population centers in occupied Tigray had their assets looted. Many of those who remained in the rural areas had their farming equipment stolen, livestock slaughtered, and crops burned or consumed. According to a recent report by the Tigrayan government’s Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources, irrigation systems and watersheds have been damaged and destroyed. Fruit nurseries have been destroyed. Seedstocks, draft oxen, and traditional tools used for farming have been destroyed. No one has had access to their money. Fuel and any other commercial supplies have been blocked from entering Tigray along with humanitarian aid for most of the past year. Farmers have been killed and their families have been terrorized. In some cases, they have been banned from planting or harvesting. In other cases, they have simply been too traumatized to work the fields.
The fourth chart shows the percentage in the rural clusters of the August Food Assessment that were found to be experiencing poor food consumption. Many of the families who remained behind in the rural areas of the Northwest and Central Zone lacked the ability to flee. It should be assumed that anyone who was displaced from these two zones arrived at their current destination without enough food to survive for three months. They were already in a desperate struggle to survive prior to the most recent invasion.
As shown in the last chart, the Western, Central, and Northwestern Zone initially comprised 46.6% of the total population in urgent need of food assistance. As of January 4, more than two months after “unhindered humanitarian access” was promised by the Ethiopian government, these three regions are now home to 19 of every 20 Tigrayans known to be in need of food assistance who have not received any outside aid.
Despite the lack of progress for the past two months, there are indications that the situation will improve this week. The latest update from the Emergency Coordination Center contains some good news regarding the areas of the Central zone where humanitarian aid is still blocked. According to the table below (from slide 6 of the ECC report), around 11,149 metric tons of food entered the Central zone since December 22. Using the standard dimensions of the WFP six-week food basket, this would be enough food for more than 657,000 rations. The table also indicates that food has been dispatched to at least two woredas that have not received any deliveries in several months.
This is a major development. If 11,149 MT of food entered the Central zone every three weeks, it would be enough to reach 96% of the target population in a normal six-week distribution round. However, it is unlikely that this pace can be sustained. Food delivery coming into Tigray has slowed considerably. In the past week, according to the joint UN-OCHA/Ethiopian government report, only around 4,000 MT arrived in the entire region. (compare this with the UN-OCHA/Ethiopian Government Update from December 29) . Additionally, there are still areas of access denial in the Central zone that would prevent food from reaching families at greatest need, as noted in slide 9 of the ECC report.
This report shows that humanitarian access is still being blocked from crossing lines of control, which is a clear violation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement. Further, it raises serious questions about the accuracy of the Food Cluster distribution updates, which have been imperfect, yet still the most reliable source of data coming out of Tigray. The last Food Cluster update indicates that the current food distribution round has reached nearly everyone in need in Eastern (98.7%) and Southern (99.5%) zones. The information provided in the ECC report, which has been confirmed by multiple reports from Adigrat, strongly suggests that either (a) the food distribution numbers in the Food Cluster report have been inflated or (b) the food distribution targets set by UN-OCHA are too low. Hopefully, some clarification will be forthcoming.
It is easy to get lost in the food distribution data. It’s easy to focus on the fact that food has been distributed to 68% of the population in need in Tigray. It would not be easy to explain to 1.7 million starving Tigrayans that food distribution is going well, broadly speaking. Because it’s not. Tigray is smaller than the US state of Virginia. If humanitarian access had been “unhindered” at any point in the past two months, there would not be any areas of Tigray where food distribution has not at least started.
After two multi-national invasions, two forced mass displacements, and two years of siege, two months is too long for Tigrayan families to wait for food. Humanitarian assistance in Tigray had to be immediate. It had to surge. Families are starving in the districts of Northern Tigray that are still blocked, and they are starving in the cities with only limited access to international aid. Every day of delays costs the lives of innocent civilians in Tigray. Forced starvation cannot be part of peace.