UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said there was a famine in northern Ethiopia after a UN-backed analysis of the situation was released.
“There is famine now,” he said, adding: “It will get worse.”
The study found that 350,000 people were living in a “serious crisis” in the war-torn region of Tigray.
Tigray has been devastated by fighting between government forces and rebels, with 1.7 million people displaced since the fighting began in November 2020.
According to the assessment, the food situation in the region has reached the level of a “disaster”, which he defines as starvation and death affecting small groups of people spread over large areas.
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization and the children’s agency Unicef have all called for urgent action to address the crisis.
The analysis – or Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) as it’s called – has not been endorsed by the Ethiopian government, which insists humanitarian access is expanded as it restores order In the region.
“Death is knocking on our door”
Residents of Qafta Humera, a remote neighborhood in western Tigray, told the BBC this week they were on the brink of famine.
“We have nothing to eat,” one man said over the phone, explaining that their crops and livestock had been looted during seven months of war.
They were prevented from seeking help by a militia fighting with government forces, he added.
“We were eating little leftover crops that we managed to hide, but now we have nothing,” said a farmer in his 40s.
“No one has given us any help. Almost everyone is on the verge of death – our eyes are hungry, the situation is perilous. Death is knocking at our door. You can see the hunger on the face of each of us. “
Residents said they saw vehicles carrying aid passing by, but no one bothered to inquire about their situation.
In 1984, Tigray and the neighboring province of Wollo were the epicenter of a famine caused by a combination of drought and war that left between 600,000 and one million dead.
“Cascading effects of conflict”
The integrated phase classification is a measure of the severity of food shortages, established by multiple organizations that include UN agencies and non-governmental aid organizations.
“An update of the IPC analysis carried out in Tigray and the neighboring areas of Amhara and Afar concludes that more than 350,000 people are in disaster (IPC Phase 5) between May and June 2021,” the report says. .
“This severe crisis results from the cascading effects of the conflict, including displacement of populations, restrictions on movement, limited humanitarian access, loss of crops and livelihoods, and dysfunctional or non-existent markets,” adds the analysis. .
It said that in May, 5.5 million people faced high levels of acute food insecurity in the region and that the situation was likely to worsen until September.
But the report does not officially declare a famine, which has a very precise definition.
The power of the word “famine”
The IPC announcement fails to declare a famine in Tigray. This is because the “f word” is such a powerful and compelling word that governments and international organizations have agreed that it should only be used when certain strict criteria are met.
For now, the IPC has opted to use the word “disaster” instead – with a warning that large parts of Tigray are threatened with famine in the coming months.
Simply put, a “phase 5 disaster” can refer to small groups of people, spread over large areas, while the word “famine” is only used when a large and distinct population group is experiencing dire conditions. starvation and death. And right now in Tigray – in part because of insecurity and problems accessing those who need it most – there is no data yet to support a definition of famine.
But many experts find this debate – often highly politicized – about definitions both petty and counterproductive, and individuals, like UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, have chosen to ignore the rules and insist that “there is now famine in Tigray”.
Why is there fighting in Tigray?
Last November, the Ethiopian government launched an offensive to overthrow the then ruling party in the region, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF).
The party had had massive fallout with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed over political changes to the country’s ethnic federal system – although the TPLF’s capture of federal military bases in Tigray was the catalyst for the invasion.
Mr Abiy, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, said the conflict was over at the end of November, but the fighting continued.
Thousands of people have been killed. Tens of thousands of people have sought refuge in neighboring Sudan.
All parties have been accused of numerous human rights violations.
When is a famine declared?
Food shortages can lead to a lack of nutrition in large numbers of people, but rarely constitute famine, according to United Nations humanitarian criteria.
Long periods of drought and other problems reducing the food supply do not necessarily lead to famine.
A famine is only declared when certain measures of mortality, malnutrition and hunger are met. They are:
Declaring a famine does not create any binding obligations on the UN or member states, but serves to draw global attention to the problem.