Ethiopian refugee children who fled the Tigray conflict wait in a line for a food distribution by Muslim Aid at the Um Raquba refugee camp in Sudan. AFP
The UN's World Food Programme and USAID suspended food aid to Africa's second most populous nation last month, citing the widespread diversion of supplies from those in need.
In a situation report released Monday, the UN's humanitarian agency OCHA said an estimated 8.8 million people in northern Ethiopia were in need of food assistance, in addition to millions of others in the country's drought-hit south and southeastern regions.
A peace deal signed in November last year between Ethiopia's government and Tigrayan rebels ended a two-year war, allowing aid flows to gradually pick up pace, but the region has reported "a sharp increase in cases" involving patients diagnosed with medical complications due to acute hunger.
"Compared to (the) same month last year (April 2022): severe acute malnutrition cases admissions increased in Tigray by 196 per cent," the report said, pointing out that the figures could also be "partly attributable to better access to health facilities and data collection".
Across the country, OCHA noted an increase of 15 per cent in "severe acute malnutrition admissions" between January and April this year, compared to the same period in 2022.
"In Tigray, there is a concern on worsening food insecurity among the vulnerable population groups, following the pause of food distributions due to reports of significant diversion of humanitarian food assistance," OCHA said.
The "temporary pause for food aid in Tigray (is) negatively impacting already high malnutrition rates", it added.
Prior to the nationwide suspension, USAID and WFP said in May that they would freeze food aid to Tigray after the agencies discovered that shipments were being diverted to local markets.
Neither agency has identified those responsible for taking the aid and reselling it.
A region of six million people, Tigray has been in the grip of food shortages for over two years, with residents telling AFP last month that they were struggling to feed their families, sometimes consuming just one meal every 24-48 hours.
During the war, UN investigators accused Ethiopia's government of deliberately starving civilians by imposing a de facto blockade on the northern region.
Aid deliveries slowed to a trickle and humanitarian organisations warned of famine-like conditions.
The Ethiopian government denied the allegations, accusing Tigray's rebel authorities of commandeering food aid for their war effort.
A temporary pause in fighting between March and August last year allowed some supplies to reach the stricken region before fresh clashes erupted, with the guns finally falling silent in November after the peace deal was signed.
Around 20 million people in Ethiopia depend on food aid, according to OCHA.