“There’s famine now in Tigray.” That 10 June 2021 declaration by the UN’s most senior humanitarian official was the clearest indication yet that embattled Tigray faced a severe food emergency. Close to five million Tigrayans were subsequently placed under watch for what constitutes emergency level conditions.
The affected population now falls under emergency (phase four) and famine (phase five) of the Famine Early Warning System Network classification. A famine is declared when households have an extreme lack of food even after they’ve used all available coping strategies. It’s when starvation, death, destitution, and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident.
The purposes of this article are threefold. First, I provide a brief insight into the food security situation in Tigray. For this I rely on recent reports from the World Peace Foundation and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Given that the Ethiopian government has imposed complete communication blackout in Tigray, these reports serve as benchmarks for evaluating the true magnitude of the humanitarian crisis.
Second, I reflect on gains made on mostly public led land rehabilitation and restoration efforts to place the current scale of destruction into perspective. And address the long-term consequences of the looming famine on land use and ecosystems in Tigray.
Lastly, I look at recommendations from the World Peace Foundation to help avert the impending humanitarian crisis.
Research into the global history of famines highlights dual causality. Famines occur as a consequence of natural disasters, such as droughts. They can also be man-made, such as through armed conflict.
Man-made famine accounts for nearly all documented cases of famine since the late 1960s. Research shows famines triggered by natural disasters have seen a sharp decline in recent times. The few exceptions in which natural and man-made causes were both to blame include the famine that devastated Tigray and environs during the early 1980s.
More often than not, man-made famines involve human agents wreaking havoc on the processes of food production. This includes intentional destruction of crops and seeds, agricultural equipment and supplies, such as fertilisers. Human agency can also induce market collapse and restrict exchange of produce between farmers and consumers. However, such acts are not isolated but usually occur within the context of a deeper strategy of the political-military organs to use starvation as a means of war. This has been the case in Tigray.
The population of Tigray, nearly 80% of which depends on subsistence farming, is intentionally being made to starve for the second time in 40 years as a means to win a war.
By early August it was estimated that 4.5 million people in Tigray were in need of emergency food aid. Multiple pieces of evidence suggest that Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers and forces from the neighbouring Amhara region have engaged in the collective destruction of farming equipment and assets. They have also stolen crops and livestock, and engaged in activities to stop farmers from harvesting or ploughing farm lands.
These actions will have long lasting consequences.
Land rehabilitation and restoration
Archaeological records show intensive agricultural activities in the Tigray region since at least 3,000 years ago. Centuries of continuous exploitation of land to meet food production needs, coupled with a clear drying trend in the region over the past 2,500 years, are thought to have led to large-scale land degradation in Tigray.
Earlier estimates put the size of degraded land in Tigray at 50%. Land degradation refers to the consistent loss of productive capacity of the soils. In Tigray, land degradation along with frequently failing rains has led to recurrent food insecurity. In many cases this has led to famine or near-famine conditions.
During the last three decades, following the end of the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, largely public-led land restoration programmes were given due policy attention and implemented at a scale to tackle land degradation. These were supported by well-planned and well-executed safety net programmes.
Research shows that these interventions have met a great deal of success in restoring large swaths of rural land in Tigray. Soil fertility has been significantly improved, and by extension food production capacity.
But there is one important caveat. The kinds of interventions put into place in Tigray should be continuous and sustained. They also require farming activities to be carefully planned ahead of time to make use of the fluctuating rainy season, to allow land preparation just before the start of the rainy season, and sowing at the beginning of the rainy season.
Interruption of these activities – as has happened this year due to the war – will have got in the way of farmers producing food.
And over the long term, interruption of the public-led land rehabilitation activities will lead to further loss of the productive capacity of the region.
The details of the destruction on the environmental front are still murky. But there are some indications that the scale of destruction may pose a threat to rural livelihoods long after the end of the war.
For example, interruption of farming activities on the land that was tilled regularly is certain to reduce water and nutrient mobility and conservation capacity of the soil. If this is allowed to continue it would turn fertile ground into “abandoned land”. Agricultural land abandonment is becoming a common problem globally, with serious implications for the environment including biodiversity loss and the reduction of landscape diversity.
Averting a humanitarian crisis
The World Peace Foundation has issued a series of recommendations to avert the looming famine in Tigray. These include a cessation of hostilities, unimpeded humanitarian access and freedom of movement, and freedom of communication.
But major emphasis is placed on ending active hostilities and targeting activities critical for the survival of the civilian population.
The government of Ethiopia is, therefore, obliged to provide humanitarian assistance. It should facilitate access to areas under the control of the Tigray government in accordance with international humanitarian law. This obligation also extends to the government of Eritrea, which is also a major player in the war on Tigray.
First and foremost, averting the looming famine requires a ceasefire arrangement and unconditional withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces from Tigray.
And to avoid a full recurrence of one of the worst humanitarian crises of recent times at the very least an all-inclusive national dialogue with all relevant political actors needs to be initiated without further delay.