Last week in Tigray, hundreds of thousands of civilians remained blocked from receiving urgently needed humanitarian assistance three months after the Ethiopian government agreed to allow and facilitate unhindered humanitarian access to the region. This is an improvement from the millions who were blocked last month.
The dark red areas in the map below represent districts that remain behind some deliberate obstruction. In Western zone, the Amhara regional government has blocked aid for the past two years as a method of ethnic cleansing, which has been repeatedly documented since February 2021. This is also the case in parts of the Eastern zone, including the traditional homeland of the ethnic-Irob minority, where the Eritrean military continues to refuse to allow aid. Northern districts in the Central and Northwest zone remained blocked by Eritrean soldiers.
Despite these ongoing challenges, clear progress has been made in the volume of distribution outside of the blockaded areas. In the past two weeks, the food distribution goal has been met in the Northwestern and Central zones for the first time since September (and rarely before that.)
After three months, it is possible to compare the impact of the “lifting of the blockade” on the distribution of food assistance on April 1 and November 2. It is important to note that the actual blockade was not lifted on these dates as promised, but access was very gradually reestablished.
As the chart below shows, there has been significant progress getting food to people in need at a higher volume during the current period when compared to the earlier period. In both periods, movement of goods did not restart immediately, and there was no real improvement in food distribution for the first month. In the current period, distribution begins to increase sooner and more substantially, but by the last month of both periods the weekly distribution levels were remarkably similar.
However, the progress in the current period has all occurred in the areas that remain under control of Tigrayan authorities. Food distribution in Central and Northwestern zones, which are largely occupied by forces aligned with the Federal Government, has not improved since the previous period. This is a high priority concern because while the famine has impacted every zone in Tigray, food security in the Central and Northwestern zones were most severely and directly affected by the multiple invasions, occupations, blockades, and fuel restrictions. These are areas that cannot afford any more delays in access to outside sources of food.
In June of last year, the primary challenge was that the Ethiopian government had allowed a considerable amount of food into Mekelle, but continued to severely restrict access to fuel. This created a bottleneck of aid in the capital, which was only lifted in August, when the ban on fuel was removed just prior to the resumption of violence. Today, the obstructions are even more complicated.
There are currently areas of access denial for humanitarian operations in Tigray due to the ongoing military occupation by forces who represent a clear threat to the safety and security of humanitarian operations and workers. Aside from murder and deliberate violence against humanitarian workers, beneficiaries and aid distribution sites; forces aligned with the Ethiopian Government have also been credibly accused throughout the past two years committing widespread and brutal atrocities including civilian massacres, kidnapping, and sexual violence against Tigrayans; as well as the looting and pillaging of Tigrayan farms, population centers, and infrastructure.
There are recent reports that Eritrean forces are withdrawing from Tigray, but this claim has been made repeatedly in the past month and US officials were still reporting the presence of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray as of this weekend. If the latest reports about Eritrean withdrawal are true, fuel will become the most serious challenge, even with additional points of entry for food to enter Tigray. It remains to be seen if the Ethiopian government intends to honor its agreement to allow enough fuel into the region to mount a successful humanitarian response.
It is unclear when funding limitations will become a factor for major donors, but the cost of operating in Tigray must be reduced to ensure that essential support can reach populations in need. This restoration of basic services in Tigray will play a major role in streamlining humanitarian operations, including open communications, access to capital, and consumer supply lines. However, the most obvious cost-effective solution to food insecurity in Tigray is a rapid rebuilding of the region’s agricultural system. Programs designed to support agricultural recovery in Tigray must be subject to oversight and evaluation to ensure that investment in this area is properly managed and optimized to produce impact-oriented results.
Future Food Security in Tigray
Beyond the short term, the medium- and long-term food security in Tigray rests on the recovery of the agricultural sector. If the agricultural system can be restarted in time for the planting season, most or all of Tigray will become food self-sufficient by the November harvest. Until then, the region will remain dependent on outside food assistance.
However, for the next harvest to be successful, several things must be in place that remain elusive three months following the Cessation of Hostilities:
- Security. Many Tigrayan farmers remain displaced. It is imperative that the rural areas of Tigray are demilitarized so that they can return to their farms. They also need enough food to survive until harvest and they need a reasonable expectation that they will be safe in their fields and their families will be secure at home. This requires the removal of Eritrean soldiers, Amhara regional forces/Fano from Tigray.
- Supplies. Farmers will need any equipment or supplies that are essential to a successful harvest replaced if they were looted or destroyed. Two invasions and military occupations in Tigray have been hell for farmers. There have been widespread reports of stolen draft animals, tractors, and tools; livestock slaughtered and stolen; crops consumed or destroyed; and irrigation systems destroyed that provide irrigation for tens of thousands of farmers. Earlier this month, the Government of Tigray’s Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources outlined a plan to stabilize and restart Tigray’s agricultural system. This should be used as a starting point for international donors.
- Stability. The harvest will take months. During that time Tigrayan farmers need to not be displaced again. Tigray will also need a level of resource stability. Tigrayan families need immediate food assistance, clean drinking water, medicine, and access to health care and their finances. Humanitarian relief must continue without any illegal blockage until food security is restored.
The list reads like an appeal for justice because all of these things were illegally taken from Tigray through genocidal acts of collective punishment, but it’s not. That list would be much longer. These are necessary ingredients for a successful harvest, which could eliminate most or all food insecurity in Tigray. If all of these ingredients come together in Tigray, food security in the region can rebound this year. If not, the region will remain dependent on food assistance into 2024.
Every stakeholder in the peace process has committed to “peace through impunity” and remains unwilling to call the destruction of Tigray by its true name or confront the criminals. The diplomatic failure to acknowledge the injustices committed in Tigray must not be allowed to corrupt the humanitarian support for the agricultural recovery. Simply put, Tigrayan farmers cannot afford to wait for the international community to find the political will to acknowledge that 90% of the tractors in Tigray were looted or destroyed during the past two military occupations. They need tractors replaced immediately so that they can produce food.
The progress of the humanitarian response over the past three months has been celebrated, it is now time to focus on areas of failure. Aid must be accelerated immediately to meet the needs of the people of Tigray and lay the foundation for recovery. The deal in Pretoria was that peace would bring unhindered humanitarian access, which never should have been on the table in the first place. Now that hostilities have stopped, all stakeholders, particularly the United States and the United Nations, should aggressively push the Government of Ethiopia to comply fully with its promise to end the use of starvation to subjugate the people of Tigray.