afrol News, 7 January - Eritrea produced less than 10 percent of its cereal needs for human consumption during 2002, following consecutive crop failures. The results of conflict and drought as well as pervasive poverty are in the process of producing the most severe food crisis since Eritrea's independence, affecting more than half the population.
Eritrea is currently reeling from severe shocks to its asset base, already undermined by armed conflict, drought and poverty. Insufficient rainfall for crops and livestock, labour shortages due to mobilisation, the pressure of internally displaced people and returnees, and an economic tailspin contribute to an overall picture of high food insecurity.
The US agency Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS) today warns about the humanitarian crisis that is evolving in Eritrea due to the accumulated food deficit. The Eritrean government, which declared its first drought alert on 24 July 2002, already in November estimated that 1.4 million people of a total population of 3.34 million would be affected by drought and food scarcity in 2003.
In addition to those 1.4 million directly affected by the drought, FEWS reports that an additional 910,000 Eritreans are targeted for assistance, comprising internally displaced people, returnees, soldiers to be demobilised and vulnerable urban dwellers. The government of Eritrea has appealed for 477,000 metric tons of food aid for 2003, of which 290,000 tons are for the drought-affected population.
According to the US agency, Eritrea now faces "a convergence of many factors that have led to heightened food insecurity across all livelihood groups." Female-headed households, children and agro-pastoralists were however particularly vulnerable.
Following three years of drought conditions, Eritrea in 2002 registered the lowest rainfall of the past fifteen years. In the face of the very poor performance of the short (azmera) and long (kremti) rains, cereal production has fallen to 54,400 metric tons, more than 70 percent below the recent 10 year average (191,900 MT) and the lowest since independence in 1993.
Also the so-called "wild food production" had been badly affected by the last years of drought. Consumption of wild foods is an important drought coping strategy, especially for pastoralists, FEWS explains.
Eritrea faces an uncovered cereal deficit of up to 300,000 tons this year and "rural household access to food is likely to deteriorate sharply," FEWS warns. Cereals were already in short supply in some remote rural areas, compounded by the border closures with Ethiopia and, more recently, with Sudan that hamper informal imports. The current harvest is expected to be exhausted early in 2003.
Meanwhile, the value of livestock - weakened by shortage of water and fodder - was expected to fall further with increased distress sales. Forage for animals is already reported to be in short supply, and many traditional dry season grazing areas are inaccessible due to insecurity and border closures with Ethiopia and Sudan. The government estimates a shortfall of 3.7 million tons of fodder, amounting to 29 percent of overall needs.
A government assessment has estimated that roughly 80 percent of livestock are at risk of death by disease and starvation. According to a report from UNICEF from late December, the Northern Red Sea Zone had already recorded livestock deaths of approximately 90,000 animals, more than 5 percent of the herds in the zone. According to other UN sources, loss of livestock in some areas is significant, ranging from 10 to 20 percent.
Food prices have already escalated. Outside of the major market towns, grain prices have risen rapidly compared to prices a year ago. At the same time, livestock prices were steadily falling as "owners anticipate a lack of forage and water and look to sell while they can," FEWS reports from Eritrea.
Further, "supplies of drinking water for human consumption could reach critically low levels early this year," the agency warns. Eritrea has no permanent rivers or streams and seasonal rivers are running dry early. The water table has fallen dramatically - in some cases falling as much as 10 meters below the pumping level.
According to the latest surveys, 15-20 percent of children under 5 years (at least 88,000 children of those surveyed) are currently malnourished and 10,000 are severely malnourished, requiring immediate nutritional support.
Reviewing the current crisis, FEWS holds that a single shock, such as drought alone, would not necessarily push rural households into food insecurity. "However, the cumulative impact of previous shocks has severely weakened household resilience to cope with another year of drought." Households with weakened reserves after the fourth year of drought conditions were to face the prospect of liquidating productive assets - such as eating seed grains or selling breeding animals - in order to meet basic needs, further increasing vulnerability to future shocks.
The economic collapse in Eritrea makes the government unable to respond to the food crisis. Real GDP growth has been falling from 7.9 percent before the war in 1997 to a low of -8.2 percent in 2000 due to the drought, the cost of conflict, dislocation of people and lingering lack of access to productive land. The declining value of the Nakfa against major currencies and limited foreign exchange reserves have eroded the country's ability to finance imports or reconstruct war-damaged infrastructure, among other priorities.
To avoid a rapid deterioration in food availability and access in view of limited food resources, FEWS urged the international community for "rapid action." Food aid donors needed to "step up their pledges and deliveries of emergency food aid to meet immediate food needs." Regarding the livestock crisis, the government and donors should "carry out urgently needed interventions," such as implementing emergency destocking.
Sources: Based on FEWS,