Tigray: Teetering on the edge of famine

Tigray teetering on the edge of famine

Martin Plaut


There is a danger that the tragic events revealed in Michael Buerk’s unforgettable BBC report on 23 October 1984[1] will be repeated. This map by the Famine Early Warning System illustrates the scale of the problem.[2] It shows what the situation is likely to look like by May 2021.

UN agencies have reiterated estimates that 4.5 million Tigrayans require emergency and life-saving urgent assistance and over 2.5 million children are malnourished.[3] People have already begun to die, including entire families, in cities and towns such as Adwa and Axum.

It is important to remember that many families in Tigray are permanently short of food. The war that began on 4 October 2020 came just as the harvest was coming in in many areas.

Scale of the crisis

Phase 4 in red is defined as follows. Households either:

– Have large food consumption gaps which are reflected in very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality;


– Are able to mitigate large food consumption gaps but only by employing emergency livelihood strategies and asset liquidation.

It is one below Phase 5 – Famine.


This is the key finding of the latest Famine Early Warning report:[4] “As conflict and access constraints for humanitarian actors, traders, and populations continue in Tigray, many households are expected to have already depleted their food stocks, or are expected to deplete their food stocks in the next two months.”

The UN Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) published a report on 13 March.[5] This shows that access to Tigray has improved, with some aid convoys being allowed into the region. However, nearly a million people cannot be reached because of the fighting.

“Despite significant progress, partners estimate that 950,000 people who need urgent assistance remain in areas that are hard-to-reach by humanitarian organizations. The situation is particularly concerning in Central Zone, where about 460,000 people need critical humanitarian assistance.”[6]

In addition to this, more than 60,000 people have fled into Sudan, where agencies including the UNHCR are caring for them.[7]

The political context

On 4 November 2020 the war erupted. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised that it would be a “law enforcement operation” that would “wrap up shortly.”

Instead, it has become a full-scale international conflict, with Eritrean forces and some Somali troops joining the Ethiopian army in an assault on Tigray.

There are no authoritative maps of the current fighting, but the map below (by the University of Ghent) is helpful. While Ethiopia and Eritrea hold most cities, the Tigrayans have turned to guerrilla warfare, and hold large areas of the mountains and countryside.

The yellow areas are held by Ethiopian forces or their Eritrean allies. Pink or orange are held by Tigrayan forces or are contested. Eritrea is to the north, Sudan to the west and the rest of Ethiopia is outside the Tigray border, marked in red.

The fighting has resulted in appalling atrocities.

  • An estimated 10,000 women have been raped.[8] Some were assaulted in the most brutal manner imaginable.
  • The most serious atrocity was in the holy city of Axum in late November, where some 750 people were massacred, mainly by Eritrean forces.[9]
  • Ancient mosques, churches and monasteries have been attacked and looted.

US President Joe Biden has taken a personal interest in the conflict,[10] with his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken calling for Eritrean troops to leave Ethiopia.[11] The UK has now joined this call.[12]

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYOj_6OYuJc

[2] https://fews.net/east-africa/ethiopia

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-55695123

[4] https://fews.net/east-africa/ethiopia

[5] https://reports.unocha.org/en/country/ethiopia/#cf-3j5y2zGe3kB3xF1pkLh8b5

[6] https://reports.unocha.org/en/country/ethiopia/#cf-3j5y2zGe3kB3xF1pkLh8b5

[7] https://data2.unhcr.org/en/dataviz/144

[8] https://www.eepa.be//wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Briefing-Gender-Based-Violence-in-Tigray-8-March-EEPA-Horn-No.-3-08-march-2021FIN.pdf

[9] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/02/ethiopia-eritrean-troops-massacre-of-hundreds-of-axum-civilians-may-amount-to-crime-against-humanity/

[10] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-kenya-biden-idUSKBN2AQ0LP

[11] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-diplomacy-blinken-ethiopia-idUSKBN2B30QL

[12] https://eritreahub.org/british-government-joins-president-biden-in-calling-on-eritrean-troops-to-leave-tigray


  1. An absolutely heartbreaking news. My heart goes out to my Tigrayan brothers and sisters to see them endure these unspeakable atrocities refined by Isaias regime on their own people for almost 30 years.

    First Eritrea, then Tigray/Ethiopia and who knows which other nation will Isaias destroy next? Sudan, S Sudan, Djibouti, Egypt, Saudi Arabia to name but a few.

    The world needs to wake up and tell Isaias enough is enough, and that unless he stops his thuggish behaviour action will follow.

  2. Stop killing people in Tigray
    #Eritrean troops out of tigray
    #Amhara milisha out of tigray
    #Ethiopian enemy army out of tigray

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