Skip to main content

The emergency in Ethiopia is far from over, as food aid remains vital to saving lives

  • Alert
  • Ethiopia
  • May 30, 2023
The emergency in Ethiopia is far from over, as food aid remains vital to saving lives

Download the Report

  • In Tigray, hunger will likely worsen without food assistance during lean season
  • Despite end to historic drought, southern and southeastern areas continue to face risk of extreme outcomes
  • Ethiopia continues to face two complex humanitarian emergencies, including the aftermath of the 2020-2022 conflict in the north and the ongoing impacts of the historic 2020-2023 drought in the pastoral south and southeast. While active conflict has ended and the severity of the drought has eased, it remains vital that large-scale food assistance rapidly reaches people in need to prevent further loss of life, destitution, and erosion of livelihoods. FEWS NET estimates national food assistance needs in Ethiopia in 2023 are at record-breaking levels for the second consecutive year, with the majority of those in need residing in these two areas of concern. The severity and length of the conflict and drought left much of the population with scarce resources to produce or purchase food and high levels of debt. The pace of recovery of the labor market and agricultural system in the north – particularly in the Tigray Region – has been marginal, and many pastoralists in southern/southeastern Oromia and Somali regions lack sufficient livestock to benefit from ongoing, favorable rainfall. Furthermore, in Tigray, the diversion of food aid since late 2022 and subsequent pause of USG assistance in May 2023 means many households in need did not receive assistance at planned levels; based on FEWS NET’s field observations in May, Emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes are now ongoing, raising high concern for worsening food security during the upcoming lean season. Meanwhile, food aid is the main factor preventing more extreme acute food insecurity in the south and southeast, where Emergency! (IPC Phase 4!) and Crisis! (IPC Phase 3!) outcomes persist. Acute food needs in Ethiopia remain an urgent concern, and, at this critical juncture, it is imperative that government and humanitarian actors undertake actions that ensure limited humanitarian assistance resources are prioritized for household use in order to save lives.

    Figure 1

    Projected food security outcomes in Ethiopia from June to September 2023
    June to September AFI map of Ethiopia

    Source: FEWS NET

    In Tigray, hunger will likely worsen without food assistance during lean season

    Following the end of conflict in Tigray, FEWS NET initially projected that the gradual resumption of economic activity alongside planned, large-scale deliveries of humanitarian food assistance distributions would most likely support improvement to Crisis! (IPC Phase 3!) outcomes between February and September 2023. Based on distribution reports, humanitarians delivered 40 percent of monthly kilocalorie needs, on average, to over 2.3 million people monthly in Tigray between January and March. However, it is now understood that coercive diversion of food assistance occurred, primarily after distributions. The sheer scale of assistance deliveries, which targeted the entire population of some woredas, suggests it most likely had some positive direct or indirect impact on household access to food. However, the diversion of aid sharply diminished the degree to which food aid mitigated the size of household food consumption deficits and use of severe coping strategies. As of May, food aid deliveries are nearly completely absent due to the USG’s decision to pause assistance until further notice.

    FEWS NET’s recent field assessment observations and the latest evidence from partners on acute malnutrition provide compelling evidence that the severity of food security outcomes in Tigray are worse than previously assessed and indicative of Emergency (IPC Phase 4). In May, FEWS NET observed households in areas of Eastern Tigray have minimal access to income from labor, limited to no livestock to sell, and have not received cash transfers via the Productive Safety Net Programme in over two years, leaving them with little income with which to purchase their basic food needs. Even among those who are earning income from labor, purchasing power is poor due to exceedingly high food prices. Households also have a limited ability to rely on support from community members, with reports of demands for repayment of earlier financial support now that the conflict has subsided. Many households likely face large food consumption gaps and are resorting to more severe forms of coping, including begging and consuming atypical wild foods. Finally, preliminary findings from WFP’s February Emergency Food Security Assessment (EFSA) show proxy levels of acute malnutrition are within the ‘Critical’ (15 to 29.9 percent Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) by weight-for-height (WHZ) score) range and, in many localized areas, the ‘Extremely Critical’ (>30 percent GAM by WHZ score) range. Data from the Emergency Nutrition Coordination Unit also shows admissions to Therapeutic Feeding Programs rose by 70 percent from February to March, signaling acute malnutrition levels have likely risen further since the EFSA survey.

    In the absence of food aid, acute food insecurity is expected to worsen in Tigray in the coming months. Given that the lean season typically peaks during the June to September rainy season, households will have both a diminishing financial capacity to fill widening food consumption gaps and invest in crop production for their future food needs. While households will most likely prioritize crop cultivation activities to the greatest extent possible, the availability of and financial access to farming inputs is below normal, limiting area planted. Furthermore, the very high likelihood of El Niño climate conditions and resultant below-average rainfall raises the likelihood of a third consecutive below-average harvest, undermining the degree of seasonal improvements in food security after September and compounding the already restricted ability of households to rebuild their asset base and coping capacity after the conflict. With already high levels of acute malnutrition and the risk of corresponding increases in mortality, the resumption of assistance at high levels, and assurances that aid reaches acutely food insecure populations, are needed to prevent worsening hunger and acute malnutrition, rising levels of destitution, and loss of life.

    Despite end to historic drought, southern and southeastern areas continue to face risk of extreme outcomes

    In the southern and southeastern areas of Oromia and Somali regions, humanitarian food assistance remains the primary food and income source across the worst-affected drought areas. The March to May gu/genna season has been favorable, marking an end to the drought, which in turn resulted in improved water and pasture availability. However, households have few options to benefit from increased food and income access due to the extreme erosion of pastoral livelihoods during the drought. Moreover, in areas where the rainfall was heavy, the incidence of flash flooding led to further displacement, death of livestock, and impeded planting activities. While an improvement in livestock body conditions has been observed among the surviving livestock, livestock conceptions are currently low. Furthermore, due to the gestation periods of livestock, milk availability will not increase until the next birthing season in late 2023/early 2024. While there have been minor improvements in livestock prices, food prices remain very high, driving poor purchasing power among those who still have and are willing to sell their livestock.

    Based on FEWS NET’s observations, there are still occurrences of entire households migrating to access food and income, as well as continued reliance on an already high debt burden. Many households’ asset base is low, limiting their ability to even access credit as they are unable to provide further collateral to accrue further debt. The evidence of persistent food consumption gaps and severe coping strategies are accompanied by evidence of high levels of acute malnutrition. Screening data from January to April diagnosed 22 percent of children with GAM, reflecting a proxy GAM level within the ‘Critical’ range. It is likely that elevated levels of acute malnutrition reflect the interaction of hunger and disease, including the spreading cholera outbreak in Liben and Dawa zones.

    As a result, Emergency! (IPC Phase 4!) and Crisis! (IPC Phase 3!) outcomes are expected to persist through at least September in the south and southeast, where planned food assistance remains critical to saving lives and preventing more extreme levels of acute food insecurity. The areas of highest concern continue to include Borena, Liban, Afder, Dawa, and parts of Korahe and Shabelle zones, where hunger is most severe and proxy levels of acute malnutrition are concerningly high at ‘Critical’ and ‘Extremely Critical’ levels. If planned food assistance levels significantly decline or if aid is not delivered, then the consequences for acute food insecurity outcomes would most likely be even more dire than currently projected. Ultimately, it is expected that recovery, or even moderate improvement, from the 2020-2023 drought will take multiple favorable seasons, and the continuation of large-scale food assistance will be critical to ensuring households can not only meet their basic food needs but also rebuild their livelihoods and coping capacity.

    Recommended citation: FEWS NET. Ethiopia Food Security Alert, May 30, 2023: The emergency in Ethiopia is far from over, as food aid remains vital to saving lives, 2023.

    Get the latest food security updates in your inbox Sign up for emails

    The information provided on this Website is not official U.S. Government information and does not represent the views or positions of the U.S. Agency for International Development or the U.S. Government.

    Jump back to top