UN agencies concerned by looming famine in northern Ethiopia, call for urgent life-saving action to avert it

Over 350 000 people already face catastrophic conditions in Tigray

14 June 2021
UNICEF/UN0412581/Leul Kinfu

ROME/NEW YORK, 10 June 2021 - The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF call for urgent action to address the dramatic acute food insecurity in northern Ethiopia. The three agencies are particularly concerned about the situation in Tigray region where the risk of famine is imminent, unless food, livelihood assistance and other life-saving interventions continue to be scaled-up, unimpeded access is guaranteed, and hostilities cease.

The call came in response to the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis, released today. The IPC is a global, multi-partner initiative - comprised of 15 UN agencies, regional organisations, and international non-governmental organisations - that facilitates improved decision-making through the provision of consensus-based food insecurity and malnutrition analysis.

According to the report, over 350 000 people are already facing catastrophic conditions (IPC 5, Catastrophe) in Tigray region. This is the highest number of people classified in IPC 5 Catastrophe in a single country in the last decade.

Over 60 per cent of the population, more than 5.5 million people, grapple with high levels of acute food insecurity (IPC3-5) in Tigray and the neighbouring zones of Amhara and Afar. Of these, 2 million people are in Emergency level of acute food insecurity (IPC 4) and without urgent action could quickly slide into starvation.

The severity of acute food insecurity is expected to increase through September, particularly in Tigray, with over 400 000 people projected to face catastrophic conditions (IPC 5, Catastrophe) without urgent and unhindered aid. 

The UN agencies are particularly concerned by the risk of famine in Tigray if conflict escalates and humanitarian assistance is significantly hampered. The lack of reliable and comprehensive data on people’s food security situation in western Tigray is also deeply worrying.  

“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 FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. “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.”

“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,” said WFP Executive Director, David Beasley. “We have appealed for humanitarian access but are still being blocked by armed groups. 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.”  

“UNICEF is extremely concerned about the situation across Tigray as we see more and more young children and babies slide dangerously close to sickness and potential death from malnutrition,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “We are working with our partners to provide nutrition, health care and clean water support. 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.”  

Causes of acute food insecurity

According to the IPC report, the key cause of acute food insecurity in Tigray is conflict as it has led to massive population displacement, widespread destruction of livelihoods and critical infrastructure, and loss of employment. Conflict has also limited access to markets. 

An increase in conflict could push more people to flee their homes and prevent families from accessing food distribution points or other food and livelihood sources, noted the report. 

Conflict-hit Tigray is already the most at-risk region with 4 million people - 70 per cent of the population – experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity (IPC 3 or above). Bordering areas in neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions, which host a large number of internally displaced persons from Tigray, have 60 per cent and 41 per cent of their populations in high levels of acute food insecurity (over 450,000 and 1 million people respectively).

UN agencies and partners scaling up their response 

Food assistance and nutritional support are expected to be scaled up and reach a large proportion of the population, but unhindered access and urgent funding are paramount for this. 

WFP’s response:

• WFP is responsible for emergency food assistance across Northwestern and Southern zones of Tigray and is scaling up operations to reach 2.1 million people in need of food assistance across these operational areas. WFP reached more than 1 million people with emergency food assistance during the first round of distributions and aims to reach 1.6 million people during the second round which is underway.

• WFP is scaling up its emergency nutrition response across all Tigray with partners and is scaling up to reach people in as many as 70 districts. WFP has delivered 355,000 emergency nutrition rations to children and women since February in 47 districts.

• WFP needs US$203 million to continue to scale up its response in Tigray to save lives and livelihoods through to the end of the year.

FAO’s response:

• This month is critical as this is when the cereal planting season ends for the year. Enabling people to plant now so they can have food later as well as keep their livestock alive and healthy are key to save lives and livelihoods. 

• FAO has been scaling up its response in Tigray and reached last month some 20,000 people with seeds as the planting season is now underway. In the coming weeks, 250,000 people will be reached with seeds.  

• FAO will continue scaling up its activities over the next six months – as much as resources and access allow it: distributing seeds and cash; providing animal feed; vaccinating livestock and rehabilitating veterinary clinics. FAO aims to support 375,000 people over the next six months to grow food.

• FAO urgently needs $30 million to reach 1.4 million people in northern Ethiopia in the next six months, and overall, $77 million for activities planned until the end of 2022. To date, no funding has been secured.

UNICEF’s response:

• UNICEF, cluster lead agency for nutrition, is scaling up its nutrition response in Tigray across all seven zones, focused on screening and treating children suffering from severe wasting. Since February, 250,000 children under five years of age have been screened for wasting and over 7,000 of them have been admitted for treatment. 

• UNICEF projects that out of the estimated 56,000 children in Tigray who will need treatment for severe wasting in 2021, 33,000 are expected to be missed if unfettered access is not guaranteed. This can lead to extremely high levels of under-five deaths in the current situation where more than 70 percent of the health system is no longer providing services. The lack of access also systematically impedes assessments and surveys to better understand the needs and determinants of undernutrition. 

• UNICEF requires US$10.7 million to provide ready-to-use therapeutic food to children in Tigray and affected neighbouring zones in Amhara and Afar regions. The funding will also enable UNICEF and partners to provide routine medication and scale up life-saving treatment of wasting and counselling of mothers and caregivers on recommended infant and young child feeding practices. 


Note to editors:

The term "high levels of acute food insecurity" refers to populations that are in IPC phase 3 or higher. Populations classified in IPC Phase 3 (Crisis), IPC Phase 4 (Emergency)and IPC 5 (Catastrophe) need urgent support so lives are saved and widespread death prevented, food consumption gaps reduced and livelihoods protected.

A risk of famine refers to the reasonable probability of an area going into Famine in the projected period. It is not a new classification, and it is not accompanied by population estimates.

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