Ethiopia: News Analysis - Tigray Interim Agriculture & Development Bureau Head Warns Against Looming Starvation in the Years to Come

A farmer in Tigray in Ethiopia (file image).

Addis Abeba — Addressing humanitarian needs in Tigray has been a top agenda for many followers of the crisis. International as well as local humanitarian aid providers raised their concerns soon after the onset of the armed conflict in Tigray region. The humanitarian crisis, since then has been escalating along with access and logistic difficulties in connection to the security situation.

The magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in its highest level was first acknowledged by Abraha Desta, Arena Tigray Party Chairperson who served as the Interim Administration's social Affairs Bureau, mentioning that the scale of the danger could be "unprecedented in the region's history" and that 4.5 million people were in need of immediate aid.

The Ministry of Peace, on the other hand, through its press release of 19 January 2021, announced that a humanitarian response was underway through a distribution facilitated by the National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC) in which food & non-food items and medical supplies had been delivered for more than 1.8 million beneficiaries with further plan to reach 2.5 million more across the region. It was also disclosed that the government and its partners are working closely in accordance with the memorandum of understanding signed on 29 November 2020.

On 26 February the government announced that humanitarian agencies had been provided unfettered access in the Tigray region and later it also elaborated on the modality of the operation allowing unfettered access in Tigray by providing prior notification on operations to the Ministry of Peace. However, the aids are still expected to increase much more compared to the scale of the humanitarian demand.

The recent desert locust invasion across Ethiopia which is reported to be the worst in 25 years that was reported to have affected Tigray since. The invasion also accounted for substantial crop losses posing challenges on the agriculture sector in Tigray before it was reported to subside in January 2021. It was also projected that severe acute shortages of food will occur in parts of the country including Tigray.

Meanwhile, Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, during his assessment of the humanitarian crisis in Tigray to members of the UN Security Council at a closed door meeting requested by the US under Any other Business (AOB), he disclosed that his office has received the first report that week of four internally displaced people dying from hunger, then he received a report just that morning of 150 people dying from hunger in Ofla woreda- just south of Mekelle and there by that should be an alarm for what lies ahead if more action is not taken.

The National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC), however in response to this claim said "Not a single person has died in Tigray regional state due to hunger." Commissioner Mitiku Kassa said that the report is false and those who do not want the good image of the country used media outlets to spread rumors that people have died from hunger in Northern Ethiopia adding that they have confirmed from experts working in the emergency coordination center in Mekelle and Alamata town as well as officials in Ofla woreda that no one has died there from hunger.

According to the Commissioner, the government has provided humanitarian aid to 2.5 million people adding 700,000 people to those who were treated under the safety net program.He also stated that people who need aid in the region increased to 4.5 million, thus the government, in the first round, has managed to provide humanitarian assistance to all in need, while in the second round, has provided aid to 2.3 million people, which is 70 percent of the total number of people in need. He pointed out that over 2.7 billion ETB has so far been spent on food alone, while non-food items are being provided side by side to respond to the humanitarian need in the region.

In an interview with FBC Tigrigna, Abadi Girmay (PhD), Head of the Tigray Interim Administration's Bureau of Agriculture and Development, expressed concern that there would be "unprecedented danger" in the next 3 to 4years if the agricultural sector does not recover. Abadi also spoke about the damage caused by the war in the region to the agricultural sector, the challenges faced by farmers and the current agricultural activities in the region.

Abadi highlighted efforts by his department to address challenges to the agriculture sector due to last year's locust invasion "The invasion destroyed about 25 percent of the harvest and followed by the war that broke out during harvest season left most of it uncollected or burnt." He explored, "Any of what was gained has been lost or stolen since the people have been displaced from their homes due to the war and were unable to manage their properties, be it cattle or agricultural produce means we have no seed for the next year's agriculture let alone for daily consumption." He said acknowledging cattle loss, "In some places there were situations in which even burglars pillaged people's cattle loading on their trucks."

Running out of options, he said his bureau determined, "If life is to continue Tigray, at bare minimum, what we lost last year must be compensated this year and the agriculture sector must be restored to normal and we should get harvest subsequently." But he explained that the farmers not being able to access their farmlands and having lost their harvest and cattle could pose a challenge to recovery. He asked, "How is it possible to undergo agriculture if the seeds, ploughing oxen and the land are not brought together?"

The Bureau Head stressed that the agriculture sector and farmers were devastated most, "If we can not get a harvest this year, by the next 3 to five years we could face a very serious problem. And it may induce famine, it could be the worst history in the country." Abadi warned that Tigray faced a threat that would result in displacement, induced famine, starvation and subsequent death if the people of Tigray and Ethiopia at large, including aid providers, do not contribute to the rehabilitation of the agriculture sector in Tigray. He said, "This won't be only for one year, rather it may extend to 3 to 4 years. A real danger is looming and we all must collaborate to get the agricultural sector on its feet this year so harvest is collected in the next harvesting season , because life has to continue its course despite the war."

According to Abadi, the agricultural development bureau has identified main tasks most importantly the fertilizer input supply for this season as well as seed input, cattle resource although there is lack of fodder and medications as the veterinary clinics are destroyed and the scarcity of livestock. He explained that his bureau extended its work down to kebele level, he said, "There is nothing in woredas, starting from staplers and papers to office's infrastructures including their vehicles are either destroyed or pillaged." He continued, "From our studies, to establish woredas structures we need at least 200 million ETB, but to restore back structure in the whole of Tigray's we need at least 120 billion ETB. We know that cannot be realized now, it's a dream now. Maybe within 5 to 10 years with the appropriate help."

Abadi said that he hoped they could supply fertilizer on time as the Interim Administration has promised to guarantee a purchase of 800,000 quintals which is being transported at the moment. But the problem according to him is with seed supply, "The farmer does not have a handful of grain for consumption, let alone for seeding." He continued "Our effort over last month to seek funds for the supply of seeds was to repurpose a 150 million ETB fund from last year's fund from the World Bank aimed at mitigating damages of the locust invasion; we are able to purchase around 40,000 quintals." Abadi however complained that despite encouraging response from international partners, it is yet by far very little compared to the scale of what is actually required. "We have managed to raise funds that could be enough to purchase 120,000 quintals from different partners, however, Tigray needs at least 600,000 quintal of seed that amounts to around 24 billion ETB," said Abadi while discussing efforts to have budgets of other projects be diverted to address agricultural needs.

In relation to livestock, especially those required for agriculture, Abadi explained an ox can cost between 25,000 - 30,000 ETB, he also explained that the bureau is in search of alternate funds because around 350 million ETB to address the challenge. Abdadi said in relation to efforts being made to address challenges and alternatives to provide , "We are trying to make it convenient by using tractors in collaboration with the government. In lowlands in Raya (6,000 hectares), Adi Gudom (1,000 hectares), Hawzen (1,000 hectares), Axum (3,000 hectares), and Shire (4,000 hectares) if we are to manage ploughing these lands which total 15,000 hectares twice, we are going to need 120 million ETB."

Abadi explained that there are many challenges with regards to reaching farmers. "The security situation must be addressed so that the farmers can return back to their farms. Another major is the total devastation of Tigray's natural resources," he said concluding , "For the next 50 years we need to work to restore Tigray back to normal."

The bureau head explained that he advised Tigray Interim administration, the Prime Minister and even to aid providers and was able to secure 450 million ETB in kind and cash from other regional states and other partners. But he insisted that this remains little in comparison to what is needed, "But this is by far less than what is needed (24 billion ETB) for seed alone, so we need more support to fulfill our quota." When asked about the possibility of achieving what is needed considering that April is a critical time as farmers start their seasonal work and the fact that many farmers are displaced from major fertile land in Western and Southern Tigray. He responded, "All I am saying is that we will try our best regardless. I am not saying that there is a conducive ground for farming. But what choice do we have, shall we die doing nothing? Ask the government to make it their top agenda." He emphasized by adding, "I am saying that in the coming three to four years there will be a serious situation where starvation could claim the lives of many." He stressed that this is a problem that can not be left to Tigray alone and that a situation of such magnitude must be a concern for all Ethiopians. He said, "If drought is added to this, many people could die. This has to be known and the government has to set a solution for this,"

Abadi explained the government's commitment can be determined by the seriousness of which they address the situation and asked if the policy is to be concerned with politics or to provide support to revive agriculture. The bureau head spoke of the importance of time and despite the bureau discussion with several international partners like the World Bank, EU, Norwegian Aid, Netherland, Ireland and others that showed willingness to cooperate, consideration of race against time was not taken seriously. But he explained, "Aid is not the only thing needed, peace is also highly needed as we are at a junction. People should help Tigray for the sake of humanity."

He further pointed out that the role of the media is of great importance as this is a race against time and immediate and effective solutions were needed. "I am urging wholeheartedly for the sake of the people. If we are to continue as a nation, we should pass this difficult time together," he said pleading for popular support..

Abadi stressed that the government should focus on peace so that farmers can return to their lands. "I want to underline that agricultural activities are indicators of restoration of peace," he said while adding, "Does the government have any other choice than to be ready? The government has to live for the people. The regional government is trying to support us although they don't have a budget," he continued, "It is a difficult situation. What we are saying is peace should come by any means. Don't ask me how, but peace should come.."

He expanded and explained that without peace people abandon their places for fear for their security, highlighting the human and material loss Togray suffered the past few months. Speaking about the people of Tigray he said, "The people of Tigray are hard working and ready to participate in development if peace is there."

In his final remarks, Abadi raised his concerns about the displacement of people from Western Tigray. He said, "This is so sad, and our sector cannot solve this, I don't think even the government could address this any time soon." He said banking on the hope that agriculture will be prioritized, "This is the only thing we can do with regard to our sector. Apart from this, since problems are beyond our areas, the government should focus on addressing this issue." AS

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