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UN agencies scale-up response to address looming famine ‘catastrophe’ in Tigray

A three-year-old girl in western Tigray eats a high energy biscuit to boost her nutrition levels.
© UNICEF/Esiey Leul Kinfu
A three-year-old girl in western Tigray eats a high energy biscuit to boost her nutrition levels.

UN agencies scale-up response to address looming famine ‘catastrophe’ in Tigray

Humanitarian Aid

The head of the World Food Programme (WFP) appealed on Thursday for immediate access to deliver lifesaving assistance to Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where ongoing fighting between government and regional forces has put some 350,000 people at risk of famine.  

David Beasley, WFP Executive Director, said access is essential to avoid a catastrophe, with alarming new data confirming four million people there face severe hunger.  

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Armed groups blocking access 

Although the UN agency has mounted an emergency food assistance operation in the region, increasing food distributions for some 1.4 million people, he said this is barely half the number that should be reached.   

“The brutal reality for our staff in Tigray is that for every family we reach with life-saving food, there are countless more especially in rural areas whom we cannot reach. We have appealed for humanitarian access but are still being blocked by armed groups”, Mr. Beasley said in a statement

“The ability of people in Tigray to access vital services and for WFP to reach them with food assistance is essential to avoid a catastrophe. Access must be extended well beyond major cities to reach people in desperate need wherever they may be, with adequate assistance and without delay.” 

Worst threat in a decade 

WFP has joined the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in calling for urgent action to address food insecurity in northern Ethiopia and avert the looming famine in Tigray. 

Their appeal followed the release of the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis, published by the UN and aid partners on Thursday.  

The report said the more than 350,000 people in Tigray already facing catastrophic conditions, represent the highest number in a single country over the past decade. 

Additionally, more than 5.5 million there, and in neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, are grappling with high levels of acute food insecurity. Without urgent action, two million in emergency level of food insecurity could slide into starvation. 

Conflict fuelling hunger 

The conflict, which began last November between central Government forces and regional forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, is the key cause of acute food security in Tigray, according to the IPC report.  Fighting has sparked massive displacement, widespread destruction of livelihoods and infrastructure, and loss of employment.

“Rural communities in northern Ethiopia have been particularly affected by the conflict. Many farms have been destroyed and productive assets such as seeds and livestock lost,” said Qu Dongyu, the FAO Director-General.  

“It is imperative that we help these communities keep their families fed, and support local food production, paving the way for a faster recovery. But to help people on the brink of famine, we need resources and access – both of which remain a problem.” 

UNICEF is concerned that increasing numbers of babies and young children across Tigray are facing sickness and potential death from malnutrition. 

“We are working with our partners to provide nutrition, health care and clean water support”, said Henrietta Fore, the UNICEF Executive Director. 

“However, without humanitarian access to scale up our response, an estimated 33,000 severely malnourished children in currently inaccessible areas in Tigray are at high risk of death. The world cannot permit that to happen.”   

Funding urgently required 

UN agencies and partners are scaling up their response, stressing the need for unimpeded access and urgent funding. 

WFP is working to reach 2.1 million people in the Northwestern and Southern zones of Tigray and requires $203 million through the end of the year. 

FAO explained that June is a critical month as the cereal planting season ends for the year. Last month, the agency provided some 20,000 people with seeds and planting is underway.  An additional 250,000 people will be reached in the coming weeks. 

 FAO plans to continue ramping up activities over the next six months, including to support 375,000 people to grow food.  Overall, it requires $77 million through the end of 2022 but has so far secured no funding. 

UNICEF is the lead agency for nutrition and its work focuses on screening and treating children suffering from severe wasting. Estimates indicate some 56,00 children in Tigray will need treatment this year, but 33,000 could be missed unless access is guaranteed. 

The UN agency is seeking US$10.7 million to support children in Tigray, and in Amhara and Afar regions, including with providing ready-to-eat therapeutic food, routine medication and treatment of wasting.