afrol News, 25 February - In Eritrea, time is running out. Appeals for foreign assistance have drowned in "competing" droughts and food crises elsewhere in Africa and Asia this year. While 2.3 million Eritreans are in need of help, few shiploads of cereals are arriving the Asmara port.
After several bad harvests, the 2002 agricultural year turned out a complete failure. And as the autumn rains also failed to materialise, crisis became total. Eritrea further still had not recovered from the border war with Ethiopia, with large fertile areas being mined and tens of thousands citizens still being internally displaced.
According to the latest reports on food security in Eritrean, some 1.4 million Eritrean farmers are directly victimised by years of drought. Almost 300,000 urban poors cannot handle rising food prices and failing assistance from rural family members. Additionally, some 600,000 persons are directly dependent on government food aid, being internally displaced, returned refugees or demobilised soldiers. That make over two thirds of the population vulnerable to hunger and starvation.
Humanitarian organisations and agencies working in Eritrea report that most of the rural poor households already are deprived of cereals. They are now surviving on their last resources; selling the few cattle they may still own.
But the drought has also had a disturbing effect on their cattle herds. While the access to forage and pasture is exhausted, also the ground water levels and the overall water supply have fallen to dangerous levels. There are reports of large numbers of cattle starving or thirsting to death in the pastures. Much livestock also had to be emergency-slaughtered, which has contributed to chard decreases in cattle prices on Eritrean markets during the last months.
Eritrean peasants therefore register low returns of their cattle, the sold items even increasingly including plough oxens. Reports of households forced to consume their seed grains and ploughing animals also raise concerns over the upcoming growing season. Seed should be in the soil by March to secure harvests in November.
Meanwhile, it is becoming obvious that the emergency coping mechanisms of Eritrean farmers are not enough to avoid hunger. Health authorities are already reporting that the number of malnourished children has increased by a factor of four during the last months. One health centre reported that one out of every three pregnant and nursing women visiting the clinic was found to be anaemic.
The lack of water is becoming a serious problem: villagers in the Anseba sub region of Elaberid are reportedly digging wells 12-13 meters deep to find water, compared to 8 meters six months ago. Several villagers are reported to walk up to 8 km in search of water, and have approached local authorities for a possible relocation. Many towns in the sub region need water trucked to their villages, which is an increasingly expensive solution.
Even if the Eritrean government has published warnings about an approaching disaster since June last year, external assistance has been modest and slow. Eritrea has only received confirmation of less than one quarter of its total humanitarian food aid request so far. Meanwhile, government is doing its best by importing food at high costs and ordering state officials to distribute food - thus jeopardising other state responsibilities.
Humanitarian agencies fear the current efforts will not be enough to avoid starvation in Eritrea. Currently, there is not enough food on its way to the country to provide all the needy with emergency aid. Even now, current food aid distributions are running at reduced rations of 60 percent of normal.
A possible war against Iraq may even make it more difficult to ship food aid to Eritrea, agencies say. In the best scenario, insurance costs for shipments to the region will increase, raising the costs of food aid. In the worst case scenario, an Iraqi war may even disrupt shipping in the Red Sea altogether.
The situation in Eritrea stands sharply contrasted by the response in neighbouring Ethiopia. At the beginning of the year, experts feared the worst disaster in Ethiopian history yet, worse than the 1984-85 starvation that killed one million people. Strong international efforts however have turned the tide and at this moment, more than 7 million Ethiopians are receiving external food aid. Within few months, this number will exceed 10 million people and become one of the largest aid operations in the history of mankind.
Why then, has the relatively smaller, but tougher, crisis in Eritrea not been met with the same efforts? The Asmara government, although currently not a diplomatic favourite, has followed the book in warning about the upcoming crisis at an early stage. Both authorities and aid agencies have regularly appealed for foreign aid. Still, assistance i limited.
The US agency Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) indicates that Eritrea's voice has drowned in the cried for help from other "competing emergencies across Africa and Asia." 2002 and 2003 are characterised as some of the worst years of crisis in modern times, concerning droughts and food production. Only in Africa, tens of millions have fallen victims to droughts and disasters in the southern part of the continent, in the western Sahel and in the Horn region.
FAO reports that the world's total food production shrunk by more than 3 percent last year as a consequence of these crisis, and it is assessed that the world cereal stocks for crop this year could plunge to their lowest levels since the early 1970s. During 2003, one expects a total need of food aid of 7 million tons - a growth of 60 percent from the critical year 2002.
Meanwhile, the Eritrean keeps appealing to the international community to provide more aid. Over 300,000 tons of food still needs to be imported to meet the most basic needs of over 2 million Eritreans during the next critical months.