A child sleeps on a food aid bag in the Tigray region

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 Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) revealed that 350,000 people were living in a “serious crisis” in the war-torn region of Tigray, as well as in the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar.

Tigray has been devastated by fighting between government forces and rebels.

IPC says food situation in region has reached “disaster” level, which he defines as starvation and death affecting small groups of people spread over large areas.

“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 is the result of the cascading effects of the conflict, including displacement of populations, restrictions on movement, limited humanitarian access, loss of crops and livelihood assets, and dysfunctional or non-existent markets,” he adds. analysis.

But the report does not officially declare a famine, which has a very precise definition.

Noting that this is the highest number of people in phase 5 of the IPC since the 2011 famine in Somalia, the report’s authors say it should act as an “urgent call for the provision of crucial life support ”.

The IPC says its report has not been approved by the Ethiopian government.

The power of the word “famine”

Analysis box by Andrew Harding, Africa correspondent

Analysis box by Andrew Harding, Africa correspondent

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”.



The IPC analysis indicated that as of May, 5.5 million people were facing high levels of acute food insecurity in the region. Apart from the 350,000 people living in phase 5:

The situation is likely to worsen until September, according to the analysis.

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 declared only 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.

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How did the agencies react?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Food Program (WFP) and the children’s agency Unicef ​​have all called for urgent action to address the crisis.

“Rural communities in northern Ethiopia have been particularly affected by the conflict. Many farms have been destroyed and productive assets such as seeds and livestock have been lost, ”FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu said.

WFP Executive Director David Beasley said there were many areas that UN staff could not reach.

“We have appealed for humanitarian access, but we are still blocked by armed groups. The ability of the people of Tigray to access life-saving services and WFP to provide them with food assistance is essential to avert a disaster.

“Access must be extended far beyond large cities to reach people in need, wherever they are, with adequate assistance and without delay.”

In 1984, Tigray and neighboring Wollo province were the epicenter of a famine caused by a combination of drought and war that left between 600,000 and one million dead.

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