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Record Number of People Suffering Acute Hunger in Embattled Northern Ethiopia

FILE - Habtam Akele carries her daughter as they sit at a school makeshift camp for internally displaced people due to the fighting between the Ethiopian National Defense Force and the Tigray People's Liberation Front forces, in Dessie, Amhara Region, Ethiopia, Oct. 9, 2021.

A new assessment by the World Food Program finds a record nine million people across three conflict-affected regions in northern Ethiopia are suffering from acute hunger.

A United Nations survey conducted in Tigray before the conflict erupted in November 2020 found 93 percent of the population had enough to eat. Now, some 15 months into the war, the U.N. reports 83 percent of the population is short of food, with nearly 40 percent gripped by severe hunger.

The World Food Program reports 13 percent of Tigrayan children under age five, and half of all pregnant and breastfeeding women are malnourished. WFP spokesman Tomson Phiri says lack of proper nourishment is leading to low-birth weight, stunting, and maternal deaths.

He says people who cannot feed themselves are resorting to extreme coping measures to survive.

“Diets are increasingly impoverished as food items become unavailable and families rely almost exclusively on cereals while limiting portion sizes and the number of meals, they eat each day to make whatever food is available stretch further," said Phiri.

As the war in Tigray has spread across northern Ethiopia, hunger also has spread widely to neighboring Amhara and Afar regions. Phiri says fighting and conflict-driven displacement is pushing hunger and malnutrition rates up to dangerous levels in those regions.

“WFP estimates that on average, crisis-affected families in northern Ethiopia were getting less than 30 percent of their caloric needs in the past months, pushing people deeper into crisis," said Phiri. "It is expected that that constant humanitarian food assistance will be required at least throughout 2022.”

Despite the many challenges, the WFP reports it has managed to deliver food aid to nearly four million people across northern Ethiopia since March. However, it says intense fighting in the region has prevented food convoys from reaching Tigray since mid-December.

The WFP is appealing to the warring parties to agree to a humanitarian pause so agencies can safely transport lifesaving food, medicine, and other essential relief through the frontlines. It says the lives, the health and well-being of millions of civilians depend on it.