There has been much talk since the outbreak of the conflict in Ethiopia last November about the possibility, and then the likelihood, of a famine in the Tigray region where clashes between TPLF and federal forces have taken place. The conflict is still ongoing and indeed seems far from ending briefly, as the federal government had announced after a month of clashes. Is there also a famine or not? Alex de Waal, one of the most accredited scholars of the area, gives us his point of view on the matter.

Almost a year has passed since the beginning of the conflict and, despite repeated warnings from the international community and especially the UN, a famine has not yet been officially declared in the region. Even if, as reported in these pages, aid trucks are struggling to arrive and from the frequent reports of UNOCHA it seems that food insecurity is spreading like wildfire to neighboring regions.

The latest first-hand news from Tigray, thanks to various reporters on the ground, is worrying to say the least. In the hospitals of Mekelle there are reports of numerous children with obvious signs of malnutrition, in the neighboring villages as early as last January the bishop of Adigrat declared that there were many deaths due to hunger while in June another village reported 125 deaths due to famine. Families arriving in Mekelle today, after weeks of travel on foot, claim to have eaten a diet of leaves and roots during the journey. The director of Ayder Hospital in Mekelle says that nurses arrive at work with a handful of toasted wheat all day while their own children are malnourished. In addition, as banks have been closed since June, wages have not been paid and prices of basic necessities continue to rise.

Levels of malnutrition – 20% of children in August, and as recently as 79% of pregnant women – are comparable to those recorded during the 2011 Somalia famine, which claimed 250,000 lives.

The latest report commissioned by the UN and drawn up by the FRC (Famine Review Committee), an independent agency, has formulated four scenarios and it already seems that the most serious one is underway. The risk of a large-scale famine if the war continues and humanitarian aid is slight, along with the closure of banks and the blockade of basic necessities, is medium-high at the end of September, and high after this month. The FRC also requested more field surveys to gather more information, but this was not possible.

The TPLF and FDRE have exchanged accusations about responsibility for this famine: on one hand the government blames a locust infestation last year for the current conditions of the population, the TPLF states that thanks to its victory it has allowed farmers to plant their crops. UN officials say the government’s policy of blockading the region is the root of the problem.

On September 29, UNOCHA Director Martin Griffiths said of the famine that: “it is man-made; this can be remedied by the act of government” and after two days, the government expelled seven UN officials. Griffiths’ predecessor, Mark Lowcock, until last week had made no statement on the situation, interviewed by PBS answered the question “Is the Ethiopian government trying to starve Tigray?” he answered simply “Yes”.

Since the UN does not have the ability to collect accurate information on the ground regarding malnutrition and mortality levels and then compare them to standards for declaring a famine, it is hesitating to call it a famine officially.

Beyond the technicalities, as evidenced by the data reported in this article according to Alex de Waal, the “question is no longer whether there is famine in Tigray, but how many people will starve to death before it is stopped.”


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