1. Home
  2. East Africa
  3. Ethiopia

Aid glitches and funding shortfalls increase famine fears in Tigray

‘If we don’t see serious action in the next few months, then things could become catastrophic.’

This is a family portrait pictured inside a hospital room. Berhan Kalyu, 35, holds her severely malnourished newborn son, Berhanu Woldegebrial, as her husband Woldegebrial Abadi, 36, looks on at the Samre Hospital, in Samre, Tigray Region, Ethiopia, June 23, 2023. Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Berhan Kalyu, 35, holds her severely malnourished newborn son at Samre Hospital in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, where hundreds have died of starvation due to war and drought, on 23 June 2023

Food aid distribution in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region has restarted after an eight-month freeze, but teething problems with systems put in place to block food thefts – and a growing funding crunch – mean only a fraction of those in need have been reached.

Hunger is deepening in Tigray, the result of drought and the lingering effects of a bitter two-year war. There have already been almost 400 starvation deaths over the last six months, with repeated warnings of a looming famine.

In response, aid agencies planned to reach 3.2 million people in need last month – half the region’s population. However, according to official figures supplied to The New Humanitarian, only around 574,686 people had received rations by 28 January – just 18% of those targeted for help. Separately, the regional government assisted 391,498 people.

“Implementing the new [anti-theft] system is complex, and we’re learning as we go,” a senior UN manager, who asked not to be named so he could speak freely, told The New Humanitarian. “A more accountable mechanism had to be put in place. Unfortunately, it has taken longer than anticipated.”

Reform of the distribution system was triggered by the discovery last year of “widespread and coordinated” food theft, allegedly involving both the regional and federal government. As a result, USAID – the country’s main food relief supplier – halted all deliveries to Tigray in March, a freeze only lifted in December after the new accountability mechanisms were put in place.

This is a map of Ethiopia. Inside the Tigray region is highlighted in light burgundy red. The capital, Addis Ababa, is also pointed out with a locator dot.

However, alongside the glitches in the new system, a lack of funding has also hampered the rollout of food aid. Only the hardest-hit districts were prioritised in January – with just 31 of the planned 68 districts reached. Aid agencies hope to supply all the roughly 2.6 million people missed out in last month’s distribution round by mid-February. 

Yet with a yawning $2.6 billion funding gap in Ethiopia’s humanitarian response plan, there are worries the aid effort may falter from next month onwards. The UN has called on donors to “frontload funding” before March rather than wait until later in the year, when people’s already threadbare ability to cope has been exhausted.

War and drought 

Two years of war waged against Tigray rebels by the federal government and its military allies devastated the region, and has undermined people’s ability to get through the current crisis

More than 2.5 million people were displaced, while vital agricultural infrastructure was destroyed. A UN panel accused the government of using starvation as a weapon by restricting the flow of aid. An estimated 400,000 people were living at the time in “famine-like” conditions.

With the signing of a peace agreement in November 2022, Tigray should have been on the path to recovery. But four months later, USAID suspended food supplies, and then extended the freeze to the rest of the country in June. The suspension coincided with a drought that scorched the northern highlands, including Afar, Amhara, and Oromia – deepening people’s vulnerability. 

An assessment tour of Tigray’s agricultural capabilities late last year by UN agencies, NGOs, and the regional government found that crop production was around a third of expected output. The rising cost of food was also forcing farmers to make crash sales of their emaciated livestock, just as the oversupply further depressed prices. 

The government’s flagship social protection scheme, the Productive Safety Net Programme, has been overwhelmed – complicating recovery. When finally restarted in October, over 240,000 of the poorest in Tigray were given the equivalent of $28 as a lump sum. But inflation, and the cost of trying to rebuild lives, has eroded the stipend’s value.

The regional government has also tried to respond to the growing needs – raising money in part through telethons and other appeals – and was able to reach almost 400,000 people with food aid in January. The business community in the regional capital Mekelle, and Tigrayans abroad, have also mobilised to provide assistance.

A new aid delivery model

So-called “vulnerability-based targeting”, the new food distribution system, replaces the old beneficiary lists historically controlled by the federal and regional governments. It’s a community-driven approach, wholly overseen by the aid agencies, with GPS tracking on food trucks among the additional measures aimed at enhancing security.

In December, the new system slashed the numbers of people targeted for aid by 80% – down to 1.2 million from the over five million historically thought to be in need. To better reflect the impact of the drought, and to reach more displaced people, the figure was increased in January to 3.2 million.

Diogene Ndiyasaba, who heads the Tigray office of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS), acknowledged last month’s distribution shortcomings but said the movement of people searching for assistance means lists of who is targeted for aid can quickly become outdated.

“People are migrating due to the drought – they don’t stay where there is no food,” he told The New Humanitarian.

He also noted that only half the warehouses that CRS manages in Mekelle were full when the freeze was lifted in December, and that it would take time for the system to ramp up and reach all those in need.

Picking up the pieces 

Indaba Ts’ahma, in central Tigray, is roughly a three-hour drive from Mekelle. It’s located in an area that has experienced more than 340 starvation-related deaths, according to the federal government.

“The number of deaths is increasing because people’s resistance has been worn down after two years of war,” local administrator Zemkel Gebreselassie told The New Humanitarian. “They were able to resist for so long, but they can’t go on much longer.”

Out of the 114,000 people in the district, 70% – or 80,000 people – were food insecure and needed support, according to local officials. But in January, only 18,200 people received just 15kg of wheat to last a month.

Abraha Gebrehiwot lost all his farming equipment during the war – a victim of the looting and deliberate vandalism of agricultural infrastructure by federal forces. Before the conflict, he was able to supply the local market with mangos, papayas, tomatoes, and potatoes. “Now, my wife and kids go out begging for food because we don’t have enough for everyone,” he told The New Humanitarian.

“What makes this situation especially bad is that this food shortage will go on for a year, until the next harvest in December. There needs to be a year of support to meet people's needs.”

The family was forced to flee the war to Werie, east of Indaba Ts’ahma. “When we came back, it was all gone,” Abraha said. “Even our house was damaged by heavy artillery shelling and bullets.”

The farmers here have also been victims of last year’s erratic weather. Lack of rain in May and June wilted the crops they had planted. When they tried again, with short-cycle seeds, abnormally heavy rains destroyed that crop as well.

But food is not the only commodity in short supply in Tigray. Residents are bartering food for medicine and clothes to meet their most pressing needs. To seek help for their families, some young men and women are heading to the artisanal gold fields in northwestern Tigray to try their luck there.

“What makes this situation especially bad is that this food shortage will go on for a year, until the next harvest in December,” said Atakilt Gebreyohannes, the regional head of Save the Children. “There needs to be a year of support to meet people's needs.”

The federal government has acknowledged there is a food crisis, but has dismissed concerns voiced especially by the Tigray regional government – that famine is close. It claims that those warnings are attempts to politicise people’s needs.

The multi-agency crop assessment that toured Tigray warned that the situation was dire and called for an urgent humanitarian response, but it did not discover the widespread starvation that defines famine.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” said the UN manager. “But if we don’t see serious action in the next few months, then things could become catastrophic.”

Edited by Obi Anyadike.

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.