Conflict in Ethiopia creating a massive humanitarian crisis

Bizunesh (left), photo by Serawit Atnafu/Oxfam.

Bizunesh (left), photo by Serawit Atnafu/Oxfam.

Fighting in Tigray region, combined with the pandemic, drought, and an upsurge in locusts, is pushing hundreds of thousands into catastrophic hunger

When fighting drove Bizunesh and her family away from their home in northern Ethiopia, she had to act fast. “I ran into the bush and then to other villages with my four children,” she said. She cautiously returned a week later but found “my house was looted and my valuables like mobile phone, cash, and clothes were gone.’’

She and her family are among the millions of people affected by fighting in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region since November 2020. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes into neighbouring Sudan and approximately 1.7 million have been displaced within Ethiopia. In addition to the conflict, COVID-19, swarms of desert locusts, and prolonged drought mean that many farmers have lost their harvests, seeds, tools, and cattle. This has interrupted food production, and many people across the region now lack access to the food they need to survive.

People who have fled their homes in Tigray like Bizunesh and her children have told Oxfam harrowing stories of losing their property, cattle, and food stocks – and spending days hiding out in rough terrain without food, water, or shelter. Bizunesh also reported to Oxfam staff that locusts ate about half of her sorghum already and fighting in her village destroyed the rest of the crop. In addition to the conflict, families like Bizunesh’s are experiencing the worst effects of the global climate crisis.

More than five million people may need humanitarian assistance in Tigray and northern areas of neighboring Amhara province, according to the UN. The danger to civilians in Tigray and surrounding regions has escalated at an alarming rate. There are More than 350,000 people in Ethiopia's Tigray region are experiencing famine-like conditions according to a recent IPC analysis- the largest number of people to be facing such dangerous levels of food insecurity since the famine in Somalia in 2011-12. By July, that number is expected to climb to more than 400,000 if situations do not change.

What Oxfam is doing in Tigray

“In our response, Oxfam and local organizations we’re working with are seeing families reeling from the combined threats of violence, human rights abuses, hunger, locusts, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with the ceasefire, many vulnerable people are left without protection and resources, and need is only expected to grow,” Oxfam in Ethiopia’s Country Director Gezahegn Kebede Gebrehana said.

Oxfam has worked in Ethiopia since the early 1970s. We are responding to the current emergency in Tigray together with the Office for the Relief and Development of Amhara (ORDA) and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission (EOC-DICAC) in South Tigray, West Tigray, and the neighboring Amhara region to help meet basic health, protection, and food needs. We are distributing hygiene kits, building latrines and other sanitation facilities, and providing safe water, cash, and food. We are also working in communities to identify and address what makes people of different genders feel unsafe. So far, Oxfam and partners have reached 50,000 people.

Supporting local humanitarian leadership and resilience

In 1984, a horrific famine claimed the lives of more than 1 million Ethiopians and shocked the conscience of people around the world. Global audiences saw images of starving children and were moved to donate unprecedented amounts of money. A Live Aid concert was held and a global movement was launched. With broad public support in Europe and North America, Oxfam and other international organizations delivered large amounts of assistance.

While international aid undoubtedly saved lives, it was also viewed by many Ethiopians – and people throughout the formerly colonized world – as an expression of pity toward a helpless population.

Oxfam’s work in Ethiopia today looks very different. It is designed jointly with local partner organizations to the greatest extent possible and aims to strengthen their role and capacity to help reduce their communities’ dependence on international aid. While recognizing the respecting the strength and dignity of Ethiopians and their institutions, we aim to shift power to the people and organizations who best know their communities' needs and priorities. This will save lives now and help communities prepare before the next disaster strikes.

Advocating for peace and life-saving aid

Following the announcement of a unilateral ceasefire by Ethiopian government forces, Oxfam is calling on all parties to observe a ceasefire, re-establish public services, and grant aid agencies unconditional and safe access to help those in need. Donors and the international community must also fund the urgently needed $853 million UN humanitarian appeal for Northern Ethiopia, and ensure it reaches organizations, especially local groups, on the ground quickly.

Gebrehana continued, “We are calling on all parties to make effective use of the announced ceasefire, prioritize the safety of civilians, and to allow humanitarians to safely access those in urgent need.”