Severe Hunger Tightens Grip on Northern Ethiopia

Photo: WFP/Claire Nevill/2022
Published January 28, 2022

ADDIS ABABA –  A new food security assessment, released today by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), shows that almost 40 percent of Tigrayans are suffering an extreme lack of food, after 15 months of conflict. Meanwhile, across all three conflict-affected regions of the north more than 9 million people are in need of humanitarian food assistance, the highest number yet.

The Tigray Emergency Food Security Assessment found that 83 percent of people are hungry. Families are exhausting all means to feed themselves, with three-quarters of the population using extreme coping strategies to survive. Diets are increasingly impoverished as food items become unavailable and families rely almost exclusively on cereals while limiting portion sizes and the number of meals they eat each day to make whatever food is available stretch further.

In terms of nutrition, the survey found that 13 percent of Tigrayan children under 5 and half of all pregnant and breastfeeding women are malnourished, leading to poor pregnancy outcomes, low-birth weight, stunting and maternal death.

“This bleak assessment reconfirms that what the people of northern Ethiopia need is scaled up humanitarian assistance, and they need it now,” said Michael Dunford, the U.N. World Food Programme’s regional director for Eastern Africa.

“The U.N. World Food Programme is doing all it can to ensure our convoys with food and medicines make it through the frontlines. But if hostilities persist, we need all the parties to the conflict to agree to a humanitarian pause and formally agreed transport corridors, so that supplies can reach the millions besieged by hunger.”

In neighboring Amhara region, hunger has more than doubled in five months because the region bore the brunt of recent fighting between the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) and the Tigray Forces (TF). More than 14 percent of children under five and almost a third of pregnant and breastfeeding women are malnourished.

In Afar region, to the east of Tigray, conflict-driven displacement is pushing hunger and malnutrition rates up. Recent health screening data shows malnutrition rates for children under five were at 28 percent, far above the standard emergency threshold of 15 percent. Intensified conflict on the Tigray-Afar border in recent days is expected to force more communities from their homes and deeper into hunger.

The U.N. World Food Programme estimates that on average, crisis-affected families in northern Ethiopia were getting less than 30 percent of their caloric needs in the past months, pushing people deeper into crisis. It’s expected that that constant humanitarian food assistance will be required at least throughout 2022.

Since March, and despite the challenges posed to operations, the U.N. World Food Programme has reached almost 4 million people across northern Ethiopia with food and nutrition assistance. The survey found that when access to Tigray improved during the summer months, humanitarian assistance from the U.N. World Food Programme and its partners kept starvation at bay for those who had been cut off from assistance prior to May.

More recently, however, no convoy has reached Tigray since mid-December. Fighting and insecurity means the U.N. World Food Programme and other humanitarian actors are struggling to reach areas areas isolated by conflict, in conditions that risk the safety of staff and the security of humanitarian supplies.

The U.N. World Food Programme’s northern Ethiopia response urgently requires $337 million to deliver assistance over the next six months, and will begin running out of the capacity to purchase food from February. Across the entire country, the U.N. World Food Programme has an unprecedented funding gap of $667 million to save and change the lives of 12 million people over the next six months.

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Note to Editors
Video footage here
Photos here
Full report here

Additional footage: October 2021, September 2021, June 2021.

Key Findings

  • The U.N. World Food Programme conducted a food security assessment in Tigray during and just after the main harvest in November 2021. More than 980 families across Tigray were interviewed for the assessment.
  • The assessment shows levels of food security in Tigray have plummeted over the past 15 months.
  • 4.6 million people are estimated to be food insecure in Tigray (excluding western Tigray), which is 83 percent of the population.
  • 2 million people (37 percent) are severely food insecure (equivalent to IPC 4 and 5 levels.)
  • In October 2020, prior to the conflict, an estimated 93 percent of people said they had no or little experience of hunger. Now, less than half can say the same (45 percent.)
  • Levels of food insecurity are most worrying in northwestern, eastern, and central zones of Tigray, where families are suffering from severe to very severe levels of hunger.
  • Three-quarters of the Tigray population are using unsustainable coping strategies to feed themselves. This includes limiting portion sizes and/or the number of meals per day.
  • Four in five surveyed households report consuming inadequate diets. People reported almost exclusively relying on cereals for food, showing a lack of dietary diversity.
  • More than one-third of households were reporting that their main source of food was through community-based support such as direct in-kind donations or loans, purchases on credit or begging. This shows that reliance on social networks and community coping capacities have been critical in maintaining minimal levels of consumption over many months.
  • The survey found that humanitarian assistance from the U.N. World Food Programme and its partners had provided a much needed injection of food supplies during the summer months, when access was improved in the Tigray region. This lifesaving food assistance was shared among the community and kept starvation at bay for those who had been cut off from assistance prior to May. Among those in pockets of extreme concern, the number of families facing severe hunger nearly halved between May to November (from 27-34 percent in May, down to 14.7 percent in November.)

The Tigray Emergency Food Security Assessment cannot be compared like-for-like with the IPC which was release last June, since the analytical approach of this assessment doesn’t allow for a direct comparison. This is the first reliable food security assessment that has taken place since the IPC.

Similar assessments are planned for Afar and Amhara to determine the impact of the conflict on people’s food insecurity across northern Ethiopia.

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The United Nations World Food Programme is the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.  We are the world’s largest humanitarian organization, saving lives in emergencies and using food assistance to build a pathway to peace, stability and prosperity for people recovering from conflict, disasters and the impact of climate change.

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