State of the Famine Response in Tigray
By Duke Burbridge
The last week of food distribution on record in Tigray confirms that the region has finally experienced the kind of surge in food distribution that should have happened in the weeks following the signing of the Pretoria Agreement. Unlike the smaller surges that have occurred since November, rations have been distributed to Tigrayans in urgent need of assistance from the Northwestern zone, across the Central zone, to the Eastern zone and down through the Southeastern and Southern zone. The entire region would be on track to meet their six-week distribution target, if not for the fact that several areas of Tigray remain under siege by the Eritrean military, Amhara regional forces, and Fano militia. However, due to the continued use of siege warfare in Tigray and other factors, around 1.6 million people still lack access to basic food assistance, as shown in the chart below.
The chart below shows the current state of the famine response in Tigray. The red represents the number of people in Tigray who are known to be in urgent need of outside food assistance. This is set at 5.3 million. Any visible red in the chart reflects the number of Tigrayans who are starving without access to outside food aid.
The gold represents the number of people who have received a food ration at some point over the past six weeks. This is the length of time that a standard food ration is designed to supply the beneficiary with 63% of their caloric need1A smaller ration is often provided, but the Food Cluster takes effort to clean the data of recounting. . As of March 8, slightly more than 4 million people in Tigray had received a food ration in the past six weeks. This is the second highest six-week total in the past two and a half years. The highest level was in October, just prior to the recapture of major population centers in the Northwestern and Central zones of Tigray by the Eritrean-Ethiopian military alliance.
The blue represents rations distributed in the past week. The last recorded week reported that 1.3 million rations had been distributed in Tigray, which is the highest level in the six months covered by the chart and the second highest since 20202The total distribution for the week ending September 7, 2022 was slightly higher at 1.5 million..
Based on the past three food distribution reports, most of the zones in Tigray should be on track to meet their six-week targets. Unfortunately, many of those in Tigray who need food assistance and have not received it in the current distribution round are behind a deliberate siege by military or paramilitary forces from Eritrea and Amhara.
In the Southeastern zone, 328,545 rations were distributed in the past three weeks, which is 72% of the six-week objective of 454,895. With no major obstructions reported in this zone, it should be possible to restore regular food assistance to the entire target population by the end of this month.
The Central zone has received the most aid in Tigray in the past three recorded weeks, with 1.2 million rations distributed. However, two woredas (Egela and Rama) along the border with Eritrea remain under siege by Eritrean forces. According to Goyteom Gebreegziabher (Goyteom German), senior expert with the Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Development in Tigray, no food has been distributed to the host community in Aksum (~12,500 pop.) or the 82,497 new IDP arrivals in that city.
Aid access has increased in the Eastern zone as well with nearly 714,000 rations distributed in the past three weeks. However, like the Southern zone, the Eastern zone also has three woredas under siege by Eritrean forces in Zalambessa Town, Gulomekeda, and Irob. After the past three weeks, there are still more than 125,000 people in need of food aid in the Eastern zone who have not yet received a ration in the current distribution round. According to data provided by Goyteom, those not receiving aid appear to be concentrated in Ganta Afeshum (~44,000), Bizet (~31,000), Gulomekeda (~27,000), and Irob (~16,600).
In the Southern zone, almost 216,000 people received a food ration in the first week of March, which was the largest single-week distribution total in 2023 so far. Over the past three weeks, around 70% of the total population in need of food assistance in the Southern zone has received a food ration. However, three woredas of the Southern zone (Ofla, Zata, and Chercher) remain under siege and the entire lower half of the zone has been almost completely cut off from humanitarian assistance since at least January.
About 400,000 people in the Northwestern zone received food rations in the past three recorded weeks, which is mostly due to a sharp increase in the week ending March 8. This is only 37% of the six-week food distribution goal. The Northwestern zone has proven particularly difficult for WFP to serve, with blockades throughout the distribution round in both the northern and southern part of the zone.
According to data provided by a health care professional in Shire, there has been some food distribution in the Northwestern zone to IDP populations. Displacement camps in Shire have received food aid three times since December, while camps in Hitsats and Selekleka have received aid twice, and Sheraro only once. According to the source, there are currently ~205,000 IDPs in Shire, ~140,000 in Sheraro, and ~13,000 in Hitsats. This has not reached enough people with enough food. In the Hitsats camp, the source confirms that there were 17 starvation related deaths in December/January.
Food distribution to host communities (meaning non-displaced residents) in the Northwestern zone have increased significantly in the past two weeks according to my source in Shire and correspondence with an WFP representative. Depending on the amount of food being distributed, this could close the most significant gap remaining in the famine response. Until very recently, the presence of Eritrean soldiers and Fano militia from Amhara has blocked access.
Despite the recent surge in food distribution, 1.6 million people in Tigray who are identified as being in urgent need of food assistance, have not received a ration in the past six weeks. Of this total, around 530,000 live in Mekelle and received food eight weeks ago, which is still in a range that provides a sufficient number of calories to stop a deterioration of food security. It is also possible that they have received a ration under the next food distribution round, and it will not be reported until more zones are ready to start the next cycle. An additional 50,000 are in the Southeast zone, which also has relatively stable access at the moment3Despite the more recent improvement of conditions in the Southeast zone, this area was also severely impacted by the military occupation and siege. See: Jan Nyssen et al, 2023. How did the community surrounding the Horn’s oldest monastery survive the Tigray War? – Dabba Selama revisited. World Peace Foundation (Tufts University, Somerville, MA, USA) – Reinventing Peace. https://sites.tufts.edu/reinventingpeace/.
This leaves more than a million people in Tigray, in famine conditions, cut off from food assistance. Many are displaced with no access to their fields, livestock, or assets. Others lost everything to looting and pillaging committed by pro-government forces. All have survived two and a half years of siege warfare and two scorched earth military occupations. More than 600,000 Northwestern zone, which was an epicenter of the Tigray Famine and deeply impacted by the siege tactics used by the Ethiopian government. Still others have been entirely cut off from aid for the past two and a half years, including in Western Tigray and districts along the Eritrean border in Central and Eastern Tigray.
The surge in September to October 2022 was limited and unsustainable because the Ethiopian government was using starvation as a weapon of war against the people of Tigray. The bad reasons offered for starving Tigrayan civilians in 2022 no longer exist. It is logistically possible to deliver food to every area of Tigray where people are starving, but some areas remain intentionally blocked in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. As things currently stand, the Tigray Siege remains an existential threat to the Kunama and Irob ethnic groups as well as hundreds of thousands of Tigrayan civilians who have done nothing to deserve such a brutal punishment.
Food security is existential, but also only one of several major urgent human survival needs in Tigray today. The amount of unexploded ordnance (UXO) throughout the entire region presents a risk to public health that is both immediate and long term. A report in the most recent update of Tigray’s Emergency Coordination Center (Mar 17) documented nearly 500 UXO-related deaths and injuries spread from the Northwestern zone all the way to the Eastern zone. Children accounted for 64% of victims and more than half of the incidents have occurred in areas for farming or grazing. Aside from the obvious immediate trauma inflicted by UXO to victims and families, each incident also has a chilling impact on agricultural production if farmers are afraid to plough their fields. Additional reports from UNHCR in the Eastern zone and from personal sources in the Central and Northwestern zones indicate that resources are needed now to address growing and legitimate fears of UXO contamination of farmland, particularly in displaced farmers recently returning to their fields.
Food distribution in Tigray must streamline and stabilize for the people to be able to focus on the task of rebuilding their region and society after more than two years of genocide. Tigrayans need to be able to access basic staples of survival, basic services, and their assets. They need occupying forces removed from Tigray (with their ordinance) so that displaced families can return to their homes, farmers can return to their fields, children can go to school, and communities can rebuild and heal. This has to happen soon so that the next harvest in Tigray can lift the region out of food insecurity in November.
The number of lives lost between now and the next successful harvest in Tigray may well be determined by the courage of political leaders outside of Ethiopia to ensure that aid access continues to expand and stabilize. For food to get to starving families in Tigray it has to get past a variety of entities that have demonstrated a willingness, and, at times, an intention to let the people of Tigray starve to death. This includes several officials and entire ministries of the Ethiopian Federal Government, the Eritrean military, the Amhara Regional Government, and the Afar Regional Government. Each of these groups are either currently laying siege to areas of Tigray or have spent most of the past two years obstructing food assistance while Tigrayans starve to death. Vigilance will be needed from the US to end the climate of impunity that protected the Tigray Genocide.
All charts and distribution data in this article are taken from the weekly “Tigray Response Weekly Dashboard – Food Assistance” updates from the Ethiopia Food Cluster, which can be found at https://fscluster.org/ethiopia/documents.