Despite aid, ‘hunger season’ looms over Eritrea

Published: 31 March 2004 0:00 CET

Ola Skuterud*, in Hagaz

The road to Hagaz in the parched region of Anseba takes the Red Cross convoy westwards, down the steep slopes from Keren to Gash Barka. Our goal today is to monitor food distributions to the drought affected population in the area served by the Red Cross Society of Eritrea (RCSE).

Struggling uphill in the opposite direction with their heavy loads of firewood is a group of camels, guided by some young boys. In this century of modernity, mobile telephony and space conquest, these camels, casting haughty glances at those passing by, remain the most important and reliable source of transportation for many villagers in Eritrea.

These people are heading for Keren with the intention of boosting their income by selling valuable pieces of wood collected from a country that has already suffered severe deforestation.

Breadwinners walking to other towns in search of casual work to add a few nakfa, the national currency, to their empty purses. Daily life is a constant struggle in this drought-stricken country, and every member of the family is expected to make a contribution.

At the bottom of the valley we leave the main road to go deeper into the countryside. There is no sign of any rain since our last visit to this area three months ago, when the Red Cross was assessing the extent of the drought and preparing for a new relief operation.

The cloud of dust that shadows our car speaks volumes about the devastating work of the sun and warns villagers of our imminent arrival.

Hovering above the village of Begu is another cloud of dust. Just a few days ago the Red Cross distributed agricultural tools here and they have already been put to good use. Dozens of men and women are in the fields, silently and stubbornly working the dry earth, all hoping that this will be the year they dream of, with good rains and even better harvest.

The people of Begu may be poor but there are proud and want to live their lives in dignity. The word goes around the neighbouring villages that food is not being handed out for free but with some participation from the villagers as a contribution to a long-term food security plan.

Sultan, one of the farmers, is happy to explain the concept of community participation and the importance of the work being done by his fellow villagers. “You see, the rainfall in our area is so limited. We cannot let a single drop of water escape without having benefited from it. Therefore we are building these earth walls across the plain to make use of whatever scarce water it may receive.”

Divided into three groups, 130 people are preparing the ground for the next planting season, which should come in three to four months. Hopefully, by June, people will be able to plant their precious millet and peanut seeds.

But Sultan’s enthusiasm evaporates as he explains that not a single drop of rain has fallen in these parts since last August. The whole village prays for the rain to come. Despite the blunt reality, I found myself secretly imploring some superior being to make their dream come true. What can a farmer do without rain?

“Well, we can prepare the ground so as to utilize every valuable drop. Then God will do the rest,” Sultan answers, putting into practice the old saying ‘help yourself and God will help you’.

Instead of God, help has come from many National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, including those from Finland, Libya, Japan, Monaco and Sweden. Their donations, amounting to 41.7 per cent of the Federation’s appeal for Eritrea, have enabled the RCSE to deliver tools and truck water to Sultan and his drought-affected neighbours.

Initially puzzled by the Red Cross Red Crescent logo on my T-shirt - the emblem of the International Federation - Sultan comments: "I gather these are symbols of peace, no discrimination and support to the vulnerable. And you carry them both. They look good there together on your chest. I see no difference between them!”

Eritrea’s drought may have moved some but insufficiently. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the response from donors, we were forced to make the painful decision of distributing rations below accepted international standards. So the 50,000 people benefiting from Red Cross assistance will receive, at least until the end of May, only 70 per cent of the standard daily ration of 2,100 kilocalories per person.

There is still an outstanding balance of 2.86 million Swiss francs (US$ 2.26 million) of the appeal to be met if we are to at least limit the impact of drought on these people.

But it is not only the people who are dependent on the rains. Sultan explains what every child in Anseba zoba knows: that April, May and June are critical months for their livestock. At the moment, the animals are finishing off the hay and leaves of thorny trees and bushes in and around the village.

If rain does not come, the animals will start dying. With only two or three goats per household the loss of only one will be a significant blow for a farmer.

“We have created a system, whereby, if the worst comes to the worst, a herdsman will bring the animals of many farmers to Gash Barka, some 50 to 60 km further west, where the grazing might be better,” says Sultan. But that will cost them 25 nakfa per head and per month. And raising that amount of money is close to impossible for the impoverished Begu community.

In any case, sending animals away may prove pointless since the Gash Barka region is as dry as Begu. For people here, the Red Cross food distributions are lifesaving, but for their animals there is no mercy. Throughout Eritrea crops and food aid stocks are not expected to last beyond March. For some 1.9 million people, this is when the “hunger season” will begin.

*Ola Skuterud is the Federation’s head of delegation in Eritrea