The humanitarian situation in Tigray – aid, food security and famine

6 December 2021

Good morning. Like all non-Ethiopians who speak about this war, it is important at the outset to explain my involvement with the country.

Since 1994 I have been doing soil research in Ethiopia, first in Tigray with the communities of Tembien and with Mak’alle University. Then, as the coordinator of a huge university cooperation programme with Bahir Dar University, in the Amhara region. Importantly, I have no financial or personal relationship with any individual involved in the political or military leadership of either side in this war.

Now let’s talk about the impact of the war on the food situation in Tigray.

The average crop yield for wheat in Tigray was 0.5 t/ha in 1995; it increased to around 2 t/ha in recent years. This is close to average yields in the French departments of Gard or Vaucluse, for example, which have a somewhat similar landscape and also a semi-arid climate, rather like Tigray.

We have seen similar yield increases all over the country, since around 1995. Specifically in Tigray, soil and water conservation techniques have been applied on a broad scale; people worked hard to terrace their mountain slopes. In 2017 the Tigray Region obtained the UNCCD Gold Award for Land restoration.

We were busy with soil conservation before the war started. With colleagues involved in Tigray and Ethiopia for years, we launched the “Scientists’ appeal for a ceasefire & humanitarian aid”. We had a very good response, with all the rectors we worked with signing, and many signatories from other countries.

But hate speech developed on the Bahir Dar side – Professor Seyoum Teshome was preaching 1.5 hour on Amhara TV against the then Mak’alle University president, Prof Fetien and myself. His main point: “This is the war for we have been waiting for, for 27 years. Don’t get in the way.”

To the organisers of this webinar, I regret to say that by taking 1991 as a starting point for your reflections on the situation in Ethiopia, you buy the idea that the ongoing war is a war of revenge, and somehow that all that has happened could somehow be justified. We could also start this reflection in 1974 – with Emperor Haile Selassie and famine; or in 1985 – Mengistu and famine; and now – Abiy and famine.

From the onset of this war, we feared that Tigray might be hit by famine because the Tigrayan society was disorganised by Covid; there was also a locust plague. Then the war came to this semi-arid region. What we got was worse than “normal war”: we got the whole catalogue of war crimes – anything that we heard from our parents about the Nazis in Europe, we have seen it repeated by the Abiy government in Tigray.

Others will present these massacres in much more detail, let me just tell you about one that happened in one of our project areas, May Haidi. There the Ethiopian soldiers stopped a group of farmers who were carrying a women to the hospital; they made them lie on the ground, and then killed them, smashing their heads with large boulders.

There has also been ethnic cleansing – the “Ethiopia Situation Report” published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is very detailed when it comes to “numbers” about the humanitarian situation. In their most recent edition, they mention 1.2 million of Tigrayans forcibly removed out of Western Tigray – 1.2 million people!

The Eritrean mercenaries carried out many of these war crimes; yet, Abiy has to take full responsibility for these crimes since he invited them into the country.

Soon after the war started, Belgian diplomacy expressed their concerns, like many others… After one year of war, the international diplomacy still says it has concerns… concerns… Yet, France sells weapons to Ethiopia and to its ally the United Arab Emirates; Canada’s mining sector continues to prospect for gold in Ethiopia. We would have hoped that sanctions would have ended such actions.

I join US representative Ilhan Omar who pleads for an arms embargo. Even though it is late: an arms embargo should have been put in place a year ago.

For our part, we collected data on agricultural activities even while the Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers were occupying Tigray – researchers discreetly collected data and reported it by telephone.

The soldiers were terrorising the rural communities in Tigray: they killed their oxen, forbade them from ploughing, provided no fertiliser, or improved seeds, while grinding mills were burned down, …

Farmers took enormous risks to plough. They went out at night, sometimes as late as 2AM, to plough until eight in the morning, before the soldiers started moving about.

By the end of June 2021, when the Ethiopian National Defence Force troops were pushed out of Tigray, every farmer had to plough, even though they had only a few weeks left to sow. Many of them did not have any seeds, because they had eaten their seeds as roasted grain while hiding in the mountains to escape the soldiers.

Farmer markets became very important. The indigenous trading system revived, so that seeds of different crops could be bartered in markets. On 22 June many farmers were in the Togogwa market to make just such seed exchanges, only to have Prime Minister Abiy’s airforce bomb the market, killing 64 people. Less well known is that on that same day Ethiopian war planes also attempted to bomb the Addilal market, 20 km north of Togogwa, but their bombs missed their intended target.

As a result, we found that 35% of the land was left fallow, because farmers had no oxen, ploughing had been forbidden, many farmers had become internally displaced, or they had no seed. Also, once the Ethiopian troops were forced to leave Tigray at the end of June 2020, Abiy organised a blockade of the region: a mediaeval siege which has led directly to famine.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network has detailed maps: in October 2020 Tigray was “Food secure”; in October 2021 there was an “Emergency” and a “Famine” all over the region. The worst famine for a decade anywhere in the world.

There is also an “Emergency” situation in some adjacent parts of Amhara and Afar regions; that is because the Abiy government blockaded these areas too, together with Tigray.

Our recent data collection, with our colleagues from Mak’alle University, comprised field observations and farmers’ assessment of the status of crop growth. For example, 25% of the land was deemed “promising” in Tsa’ida Imba district, it was expected to yield the same harvest as a normal year; 45% was “promising” in Inderta district. This means of course that 55%-75% of the farmlands were “not promising”, indicating a crop failure.

We have submitted two papers about this topic to international journals; one of these papers received a recommendation for “moderate revision”. Our data or maps have not been questioned, but the reviewers found that historical parallels were missing – of course we will include the famine created by Derg in the 1980s, and I am now reading about Hitler’s “Hungerplan”, that he implemented in 1941 with the aim of subduing the Soviet Union.

Thank you. And, like every righteous person in this room, I am just waiting for this war to stop so that we can contribute to the reconstruction of Tigray.


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