The United Nations has reported a significant increase in severe malnutrition cases in Ethiopia’s war-ravaged Tigray region, predicting a further deterioration of the situation following the suspension of food aid. The UN’s World Food Program and USAID halted food assistance to the second most populous nation in Africa last month, citing widespread diversion of supplies meant for those in need.
According to the latest situation report released by the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA on Monday, approximately 8.8 million people in northern Ethiopia require urgent food assistance. This number is in addition to the millions of others affected by drought in the country’s south and southeast regions.
Although a peace agreement was signed in November of the previous year between the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan rebels, putting an end to a two-year conflict and allowing aid to gradually resume, the region has witnessed a sharp increase in medical complications due to acute hunger.
The report stated, “Compared to the same month last year (April 2022), severe acute malnutrition cases in Tigray have increased by 196 percent.” It also acknowledged that these figures could be partly attributed to improved access to health facilities and better data collection.
Nationwide, OCHA observed a 15 percent rise in admissions for severe acute malnutrition between January and April this year, compared to the same period in 2022.
OCHA expressed concern about worsening food insecurity among vulnerable populations in Tigray due to the pause in food distributions resulting from reports of significant diversion of humanitarian aid. The temporary halt in food aid in Tigray is exacerbating an already dire situation of high malnutrition rates, the agency added.
In May, both USAID and WFP announced the suspension of food aid to Tigray after discovering that shipments were being redirected to local markets. However, the responsible parties for this diversion and resale have not been identified by either agency.
With a population of six million people, Tigray has been grappling with food shortages for over two years. In interviews with AFP last month, residents revealed the hardships they face, including struggles to feed their families, sometimes surviving on just one meal every 24-48 hours.
During the war, UN investigators accused the Ethiopian government of intentionally starving civilians by imposing a de facto blockade on the northern region. Aid deliveries were severely hindered, and humanitarian organizations warned of conditions resembling famine.
The Ethiopian government has consistently denied these allegations, placing blame on the rebel authorities in Tigray for seizing food aid for their own war efforts.
Although a temporary respite from fighting between March and August of the previous year allowed some supplies to reach the beleaguered region, fresh clashes erupted, and it was not until November when the peace deal was signed that the guns fell silent.
According to OCHA, approximately 20 million people in Ethiopia rely on food aid to survive.