Wednesday, June 12, 2024
InterviewBarren fields: Famine rears its ugly head in Tigray

Barren fields: Famine rears its ugly head in Tigray

At least 860 dead from hunger

Famine has claimed hundreds of lives in Tigray and regional officials warn that the situation could grow worse without an immediate intervention from the federal government and aid agencies.

It is the catastrophic result of a drought which followed two years of war, leaving millions at risk of hunger. The urgency of the situation is compounded by an aid cut-off from the West, while large swathes of the regional state remain outside the control of the Tigray Interim Administration.

The Reporter’s Mesfin Feleke sat down with Gebrehiwot Gebre-Egziahber (PhD), head of the Tigray Disaster Risk Management Commission, for a briefing on the drought-induced famine and the conditions in Tigray.

The Commissioner is sounding the alarm, calling the famine in Tigray an undeniable reality that has already claimed more than 860 lives and demanding swift attention. Gebrehiwot dismisses claims denying famine in Tigray, and urges for a collaborative effort to save lives. EXCERPTS:

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The Reporter: Could you shed light on the current situation in Tigray amidst reports of the drought escalating into famine? Please provide insights based on your investigation.

Gebrehiwot Gebre-Egziabher (PhD): Firstly, on behalf of the Commission, the people of Tigray, and the Tigray Interim Administration, I would like to express my gratitude for your presence here in Tigray. Our goal is to bring the reality of the situation in our region to the attention of the domestic and international communities.

In September, the Tigray Agricultural Bureau conducted an assessment which revealed dangerous conditions on the ground. The assessment focused on three zones, specifically the South, Southeast, and East zones. It found that these areas were experiencing a shortage of rainfall. Based on this report, Getachew Reda, president of the Interim Administration, along with representatives from the region and the international community, evaluated and acknowledged that a drought was imminent.

During this time, we faced a drought problem on 141,575 acres of land, affecting 114,384 households. The assessment highlighted that more than two million people were at risk due to the drought. While this was on the ground, the Interim Administration, in collaboration with the federal government, regional administrators, regional commissioners, and the agricultural bureau authorities led by Deputy-Prime Minister Demeke Mokonen, convened to address all regions’ challenges in agricultural production and its impact in the 2015-2016 Ethiopian calendar year.

The report was thoroughly discussed and evaluated by various ministries and representatives of the regional states.

The discussions revealed several issues, including drought in the Tigray region, unseasonal rainfall, and the threat of locusts, among other problems. These issues were particularly prominent in areas outside the [control of] the Tigray administration, such as the southern and western parts of Tigray, and centered around Shire in the northwest and Axum in the central part of Tigray, which experienced more favorable seasonal rainfall. However, even in areas with sufficient seasonal rainfall, excessive rain and desert locusts disrupted agricultural production, exacerbating the drought in five zones, 36 Woredas, and 213 Kebeles.

The assessment categorized the damages and dangers as ranging from better to moderate to catastrophic. It was determined that due to conflicts and rainfall shortages in the previous year, only 49 percent of the 1.3 million acres of cultivable land in the region was utilized. The majority of fertile land, located in the southern part of Tigray (Raya area) and western Tigray, was not under the [control of the] Tigray administration due to the conflict. These areas accounted for 60 percent of the region’s total cultivation.

Additionally, the investigation covered 22 Woredas, 27 Kebeles, and five zones, as is common practice worldwide, to identify gaps in production.

The final result indicated that only 37 percent of the expected agricultural production was achieved in the 2015/16 Ethiopian calendar year. This report was the result of evaluations conducted by the federal government, the regional government, and international NGOs.

Consequently, 77.5 percent of the population, equivalent to 4.5 million people in Tigray, require immediate food assistance; otherwise, many lives will be at risk.

This report was officially released two weeks ago. It is essential to recognize that the assessment was conducted under the knowledge of the federal government, the regional administration, and international NGOs, with the participation of all stakeholders. The investigation took nearly a month to complete. Additionally, there are 1.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) residing in various camps, churches, hospitals, and schools throughout the region. These individuals have been displaced from their homes since the outbreak of the war in 2020.

Furthermore, there are 1.5 million IDP returnees who have also been without any food assistance for an entire year. International food aid organizations ceased their support for over nine months due to various reasons. Despite the relative peace that has followed the Pretoria Peace Agreement, these returnees find themselves in a devastated homeland, having lost all their belongings.

In general, in Tigray, 4.5 million people are in urgent need of food assistance, and the international community and the federal government must respond as quickly as possible to save countless lives.

The severity of the situation cannot be overstated, as people are resorting to eating non-conventional food sources, including soil, just to survive. Today, basic necessities such as education have become a luxury for the people of Tigray.

In our visits to Kebeles, Woredas, and Zones, we’ve observed people resorting to eating soil due to a lack of food assistance. Despite your administration acknowledging famine in Tigray, the federal government seems to deny its existence. Can you elaborate on the reasons behind this apparent contradiction?

In my personal experience, I’ve heard discussions about this specific issue. However, as I mentioned earlier, we reported on the dire situation two months ago in response to the federal government’s call. We maintain regular contact with the Federal Disaster Risk Management Commission and exchange daily reports with them. There is no miscommunication between us, and they recently visited five or six Woredas in Tigray to assess the situation.

Furthermore, two months ago, Ambassador Shiferaw Teklemariam personally visited Tigray and assessed the most affected areas, such as Atsbi, Tsead-Amba, Edaga-Hamus, Ferewoinee, Enderta, and others. He was accompanied by three sector experts who compared our reports with the situation on the ground. During his visit, he spoke with farmers, evaluated the work of NGOs in the region, and witnessed the severity of the situation firsthand.

Despite these realities, some individuals claim that there is no famine or death, only drought in these areas. I believe these people should see the actual conditions and seek answers from your media institution, as you have witnessed the reality during your visit.

Moreover, you have demonstrated that our reports are not politically biased or exaggerated. Therefore, you are in a unique position to convey the true and practical reality to the world. Given the current situation, we urgently request assistance from the federal government and the international community to swiftly respond and aid the famine-affected people due to the impact of drought.

Nevertheless, we have exhausted all possible efforts to adequately convey the magnitude of the suffering in Tigray. Moreover, if the individuals representing the federal communications office or other authorities were to witness the devastating impact of famine in regions like Abegele, Yetchila, or Atsbi, they would likely refrain from denying the crisis or remain silent. This is because the inherent compassion within us as human beings transcends any political affiliations or biases.

Based on the comprehensive data available, what is the total number of human and animal casualties in the famine-affected areas of Tigray. Can you share with us the specific numbers and data?

According to the recent findings from a report completed three days ago, the data collected from Woredas, Kebeles, and Zones indicates that the current death toll due to famine stands at over 860 people.

Additionally, a field study conducted three months ago by professionals from the Tigray Health Bureau, Mekele Referral Hospital, and Tigray Health Study Center, using the World Health Organization’s standards, revealed that a total of 2,694 people had died due to drought, with 1,329 of those deaths attributed specifically to famine.

This study was supported by GPS technology, which accurately identified each death in each specific location. The data has been submitted to the Emergency Coordination Center (ECC) and the United Nations (UN), but we have not received a response yet. It’s important to note that the study was conducted by professionals who followed global standard methods for their investigations.

To provide a more specific breakdown, the two studies differ in their objectives. The study conducted three months ago aimed to investigate the impact of the international humanitarian assistance that had been halted ten to eleven months ago. In contrast, the 860 deaths resulting from famine occurred after the actual outbreak of famine, which took place approximately three or four months ago.

Regarding the number of animal [livestock] deaths, our study indicates that 39 percent of the total animals registered below-average weight, while 42 percent were found to be in relatively better condition. Furthermore, six percent of animals migrated out of the region in search of food, while four percent were forcibly sold because their owners were in dire situations resulting from the famine caused by the drought.

Furthermore, after conducting an investigation into 14,000 seriously ill animals, it was found that 21.88 percent of them died due to a shortage of food. Therefore, what I want you to understand is that all of this information and data is supported by concrete evidence and practical evaluations in and off the field.

Has the federal government provided any assistance to you following the visits from senior officials?

The federal government has extended their support to us on three separate occasions. In the initial phase, they facilitated the transportation of 31,078 quintals of aid to 362,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) across 65 locations during the summer. In the second phase, they delivered 126,111 quintals of aid to 745,000 individuals. The third phase, which occurred after the Commissioner’s visit, involved the distribution of 77,000 quintals of aid to 466,602 people, following an accurate assessment of the affected population. It is easy to compare these numbers with the total affected people in the region. But again, all shipments and deliveries were arranged and made by the federal government in response to our requests.

Do you have the ability to offer assistance to individuals in areas beyond your jurisdiction?

No, we do not have the capacity to provide aid to those areas that are outside of our administrative control. This includes the 52 kebeles currently under the control of Eritrean forces, as well as the regions in western and southern Tigray over the past three years. The international community has also acknowledged this limitation.

How does the federal government address this matter? Are there any plans in place to address this situation in the future?

While my role as a Commissioner primarily revolves around humanitarian aid, it has come to my attention that certain extensive regions within the area are still under the control of external forces, specifically the Eritrean forces. These areas, as I mentioned earlier, remain inaccessible and beyond the reach of any form of assistance. The international community has designated them as inaccessible, and it is the responsibility of the federal government to address and restore normalcy in these regions because any kind of natural disaster is also the responsibility of the federal government as well.

The Reporter has observed a grave famine threatening the population. How long can the affected individuals rely on the available food supplies? Do they possess any reserves?

Unfortunately, the affected people do not possess any substantial food reserves. With only 37 percent of agricultural production and a staggering 4.5 million individuals at risk of food insecurity, many people are forced to flee their homes and migrate out of the region in search of sustenance to survive.

Are there any long-term solutions to prevent similar problems in the future, particularly by utilizing the Tekeze River? There are reports that people have been denied access to the River, and we’d like to understand why.

This is a pertinent question, and the main focus should be on building internal resilience. Previously, the country experienced famine every ten years, but now it occurs every five years, indicating an ongoing problem. While there may be various reasons for this, it persists despite efforts to address the issue through Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), which aims to minimize risks. The federal government has directed regional states to cover 70 percent of aid, with the remaining 30 percent covered by the federal government.

The question you raised revolves around the interconnectedness of human activity, land, and water usage. Efforts are underway by the region’s irrigation and water resource bureaus to address this issue. It’s worth noting that international humanitarian aid has been suspended for about ten months, and currently, the Catholic Relief Service (CRS) is only able to utilize 20 percent of its capacity. This lack of assistance for almost a year is detrimental to the people who have been deprived of aid as – to me – is a death sentence. Despite these challenges, there is an agreement to utilize available water resources, including the Tekeze River, for irrigation purposes.

However, the reality on the ground is that people are suffering from multiple problems. The proper solution lies in restoring society and enabling self-supportive development. Without taking these steps, the people will continue to rely on humanitarian aid. The major contributing factor to this situation is the war. Prior to the conflict, the region was self-sustainable, with the Productive Safety-Net Program (PSNP) providing food and employment for only 700,000 people. Unfortunately, the war has devastated the region, leaving the majority of the population, between 77 to 90 percent, dependent on humanitarian aid.

How do you assess the significance of peace in the region and society, considering the detrimental effects of war that have been mentioned?

The value of peace is immeasurable because it inherently brings harmony. However, it is crucial for individuals to actively safeguard their peace as it is not bestowed upon them. Unfortunately, since 2020, Tigray has experienced two concurrent challenges: a natural disaster and a man-made crisis. Out of the 22 globally recognized disasters, 16 have impacted Tigray, with many occurring in the aftermath of the war.

To illustrate, last year we sought fertile seeds and tractors with the hope of a better year ahead, but a natural disaster struck, resulting in rainfall shortages across 31 woredas and 196 kebeles. As a result, we are grappling with the combined effects of both conflicts, with the majority of responsibility lying with the conflict itself, as it depletes the region’s resources. The Eritrean forces played a highly organized and negative role in orchestrating long-lasting problems in the region, and we are witnessing the repercussions of their calculated actions.

Furthermore, these impacts are likely to persist. Therefore, in order to revive Tigray’s economy and recover from the current situation, it is crucial for both the government and the international community to provide special attention and support to the region.       

Based on The Reporter’s thorough assessment of the situation, we have observed that a significant portion of the population in Tigray is grappling with food scarcity, unemployment, and dishearteningly, the younger generation is resorting to gambling and alcohol as a means to escape the trauma they experienced. In light of this, do you have a comprehensive plan in place to address these issues and guide the young generation towards a more promising future?

The Tigray region comprises a total of 94 Woredas, of which 33 can be classified as urban centers. As you have witnessed, the number of young individuals migrating from rural areas to cities is increasing steadily, primarily due to the lack of employment opportunities available to them. This underscores the urgent need for a comprehensive recovery plan for Tigray. By implementing such a plan and establishing necessary infrastructures, the younger generation will regain their hope and be empowered to transform their lives. However, if the current conditions persist, the people will continue to suffer from food shortages, and the younger generation will remain unemployed.

It is crucial to acknowledge that Tigray is currently devoid of productive economic activities, job prospects, infrastructure, and any tangible means of societal progress. The region finds itself in a state of bleak uncertainty, with no visible prospects for the future unless swift recovery measures and integration plans are initiated by the federal government and supported by the international community. The entire society has lost its sense of direction, and it is distressing and disheartening to witness this unfortunate reality.

Is there a final message you would like to convey to your fellow Ethiopians and the global community?

I would like to express my gratitude to The Reporter for being present to amplify our plea. I have nothing new to add beyond what has already been articulated by the President of the Interim Administration of Tigray, Getachew Reda. Tigray is currently facing a critical situation of famine caused by drought, putting thousands of lives at risk. Therefore, we urge the federal government to prioritize addressing this urgent issue by working in collaboration with other regional states within Ethiopia and the international community. Our aim is to save lives and provide essential humanitarian aid, as well as any other assistance mechanisms, to support the people of Tigray who are affected by the famine.

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