The Heat Is Online

Famine Looms Behind Eritrean Drought

Drought spells doom, as Eritrea awaits food aid, March 18, 2003

ASMARA - Villagers in drought-hit Eritrea spend their days being hungry, walking long distances to receive food aid, or attending the frequent burials of friends and relatives.

Aid workers say children are dying as food shortages have made them more vulnerable to disease and led to an increase in malnutrition, upper respiratory infections and diarrhoea.

Many children in the Horn of Africa country are seriously malnourished and look as though they have more bones than flesh.

Scarce rainfall has slashed Eritrea's harvests and wiped out much of its livestock just as it was recovering from a devastating two-year border war with Ethiopia which ended in 2000.

"I attended three burials there (Teske village) in one week," said Mohammed Ali of the Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa, a non-governmental organisation. Tekse village, 125 km (80 miles) north of the capital of the tiny Red Sea state is one of the hardest hit areas.

"Villagers said to me, 'people are dying'. They said many people also have diarrhoea and that they bury people every week," he said.

The U.N. Children's Fund, UNICEF, has announced that 68,000 children in Eritrea are malnourished and appealed for 19,000 tonnes of food.

But 5,000 to 10,000 of the affected children need intensive medical attention in addition to food, UNICEF officials said.

Food prices have risen sharply in the last few months due to drought and many families cannot afford to buy nutritious food.

The price of sorghum, a local staple grain, at the Tserona outdoor market has tripled to 23 nakfas or nearly a dollar per kg (2.2 pounds) due to drought.

Beraki Gebru, 40, a resident of Maiaini village, 70 km (43 miles) southeast of Asmara, said the drought had weakened livestock, forcing farmers to sell oxen at around 2,500 nafkas each, almost half the price the animals were fetching in August.

"We spend our time being hungry," said Beraki. "We buy little food with the little savings that we have."


Eritrea has appealed for food supplies for three-quarters of its 3.3 million people it says are affected by the drought, which has also struck neighbouring Ethiopia.

But the food aid has been slow in coming.

Last month, Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki accused donor countries of using food aid as a "political tool", delaying food relief deliveries to pressure his government, under fire for cracking down on dissent, into adopting democratic reforms.

Aid organisations say they are running out of stocks while the impact of the drought continues to worsen.

"There is a realistic probability that we will run out of our stock in May. There have been very few and small pledges," said Patrick Buckley, the country director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

"Since it takes from two months to four months for the food to arrive in Eritrea after a donor government pledges to send it, the governments must make their pledges right now in order for the food to arrive here before the stocks carried over from last year run out," Buckley said.

The sluggish response by donors means needy families have to walk long distances to food aid distribution centres to receive just five kg (11 lb) of food donation.


But on the brighter side, while traditional Western donors were dragging their feet on helping Eritrea, new donors among developing countries had made pledges, Buckley said.

Poland, Indonesia, and Russia have made modest pledges to help Eritrea. Eritrea on the other hand has donated 1,000 tonnes of iodine salt to the WFP, which it distributed in Sudan and other countries, he said.

"I think there is an evolution taking place. There is a growing trend towards strengthening the south-to-south cooperation," he said.

Olivier Degreef, visiting representative from UNICEF headquarters in Geneva, defended donor governments, saying there were more countries needing help than ever before.

Urgent requests for aid to relieve equally severe food shortages in countries in southern and western Africa, as well as other Horn of Africa countries, are vying for donor dollars.

"There is no donor fatigue in the donor governments," he said. "They have more professional specialists working in international cooperation than ever before," he said. "They just demand accurate information."

But to many Eritreans time is running out.

"The government has forgotten us," said a 66-year-old man. "Even God has forgotten us."