Eritrea faces more drought-induced misery

Published: 3 February 2004 0:00 CET

Ola Skuterud* in Asmara

From the top of a highland plateau, at some 2,400 metres altitude, a mountainous lunar landscape bears witness to the many months that have passed since rain fell from the Eritrean sky. Everywhere, the grass is brown. Cacti provide the only green on the landscape. Some thick-skinned camels and a few goats are clinging to the leaves of thorny acacia trees in an attempt to satisfy their need for food.

Our regional disaster response team, which is conducting a food security assessment, reach the Anseba region, some 65 km north of the capital Asmara. On board are colleagues from the Seychelles and Uganda Red Cross as well as the Federation’s regional delegation in Nairobi.

Although used to natural disasters, some find it difficult to believe that we are in the middle of what used to be a fertile land. Was it along this sandy road that many years ago, Italians – temporary rulers of this small narrow land along the Red Sea - were growing all kind of citrus fruits for the delight of European consumers?

Three years of poor rain and severe drought have literally ruined Anseba and large parts of Eritrea. In 2002 the country recorded the worst drought and domestic food production since its independence, more than ten years ago.

Hopes were high that 2003 would be a year of recovery. Exhausted by years of war and natural disasters people would say: “We had reached the bottom. Now things can only improve”. There was news of an increase in rainfall and hopes of good harvests. Colleagues from the Red Cross Society of Eritrea were particularly optimistic. Like many involved in the distribution of humanitarian aid, we started planning an end of our relief activities.

Alas, our hope didn’t last long. Areas such as Anseba zoba, where the Red Cross was operating, were hit even harder than the year before. Instead of decreasing, the ranks of vulnerable people swelled. With donors remaining hesitant, the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC), supported by UN agencies and aid organizations, had to cut their rations down to 60 per cent of the basic humanitarian standards in order to accommodate the needs of 1.9 million people. Almost 54 per cent of Eritrea’s 3.5 million people are suffering from the food shortages.

We stop by one of our water projects. Gleaming under the scorching sun is a solar panel. In the middle of nowhere, the Red Cross has installed a modern system that generates power for a water pump. Local people have been trained how to maintain and operate this simple device. A long queue of people and animals stands waiting at the distribution point. Most of them are women and children. Some have walked up to 20 kilometres. A few skinny donkeys, brought to help carry the water back to the villages, are obediently waiting.

“It used to take me two hours to fetch and bring the water to the village. Now in 20 minutes I’m home,” a young boy from the neighbourhood says. He walks away carefully with his ten-litre plastic jerry can, a weight clearly too heavy for his frail body.

But he, like the rest of the community, is happy and values the water project and the time it saves them. It means a lot for their general health, for the school children’s study time, and for the daily life of everybody in the villages around.

Elsewhere a Red Cross water-trucking system is the only source of water for thousands of vulnerable people. The gratitude expressed by villagers and authorities alike is almost overwhelming. But this good feeling entails more responsibility. During more discussions with women groups and at health stations a constant message of concern over the drought and food situation comes through.

The yield of the 2003 harvest will in most villages cover the need of only two months, but in some it will only be enough for one month. It is true that in Anseba famine was averted thanks to the Red Cross relief operation. Despite that, increased vulnerability sent malnutrition rates up from 16 per cent in 2002 to 20 per cent in 2003. Riverbeds are dry. Shallow wells are drying up and the ground water level continues to fall. More people have to walk longer distances and spend more to fetch the minimum water requirements. We can’t allow this situation deteriorate further.

From a slow and late response by donors to the Federation’s emergency appeal for Eritrea, launched in December 2002, new pledges were still coming in the latter part of the year as the programme was approaching its end. A remaining balance would enable us to cover some of the needs of our 50,000 beneficiaries in the beginning of 2004. But that is not enough.

In Gizgiza village, the water in both boreholes is highly contaminated, leaving people the sole alternative of walking 15 km to the Anseba River. Eight years ago, a dam was built there. It supplied enough two to three months per year, but for the last two years it has been completely dry. Water for hygiene use had become a luxury item.

Throughout the Anseba region the picture for the coming months is bleak. Casual work is scarce and fetching firewood for sale is a risky business in a country where deforestation has become an environmental problem, forcing the Government to introduce strict regulations.

No rain is expected for another four to five months. Even then, the April-May rainy season has failed completely for the last two years.
The opinion within the assessment team is firm: it would be inadmissible to close down our food and relief distribution under such difficult circumstances.

As I write, in Kush like in several other villages in the Shebek area the Red Cross has already resumed its water-trucking program for 6,000 people.

The Federation is today launching an emergency appeal for 4.9 million Swiss francs (US$ 3.9 million) to enable the Red Cross of Eritrea to assist 50,000 people to cope for nine months with the serious consequences of this prolonged drought. The present appeal has also a development component, which focuses on community involvement, responsibility and sustainability. I call on you to support us now.

* Ola Skuterud is head of the International Federation’s delegation Asmara