Malnutrition and sickness, not crops, grow in Eritrean dustbowl

Published: 13 May 2003 0:00 CET

The ward at Hagaz health centre is hot and crowded. Patients doze, listless in the heat. Babies cry, and on a bed by the door, a little girl in a pink dress is asleep. Her worried mother, tears rolling down her face, gently strokes her daughter’s tiny arm.

Khalid Mohammed, aged two, is suffering from malnutrition, vomiting and diarrhea. Her mother has been told that her daughter must stay in the clinic for supplementary feeding, until she has gained weight.

“What can I do? I want my daughter to live,” she says. “She is sick because we used to have milk in our village, but now there is nothing for her.”

The family lives in the village of Hashishy, in the barren, drought-affected region of Hagaz, in northern Eritrea.

Set on a vast plain and surrounded by mountains, the village appears from a distance almost picturesque. But its idyllic setting belies the harshness of life there.

The name, Hashishy, means ‘dry grass’, but even that modest claim is misleading. There is no grass in the village, merely endless scorched sand and rocks.

After years of poor rainfall, the water table has dropped and water is in increasingly short supply. The permanent queue of empty Jerry cans at the village well testifies to the fact that there is never enough water for the 1,200 villagers.

Insufficient rainfall over the past four years has also led to the failure of successive harvests. As a result, the inhabitants of Hashishy, who were once able to grow much of their own food, are struggling to survive. Last year farmers across the region were able to only produce 15% of the cereals needed by its 68,000 inhabitants.

Livestock is dying for lack of food and water, and grain prices in nearby markets have soared out of the reach of most families. Malnutrition and illness have increased and the villagers are becoming increasingly desperate.

The effects of the current drought are being felt all over the Eritrea. Joint studies by the government and international agencies estimate that more than two thirds of the country’s 3.4m population are affected, with 1.4m considered to be “highly food insecure”.

Recent nutritional reports also show that acute malnutrition in children is nearing 15 percent in the regions of Hagaz, Asmat and Habero, which according to World Health Organization classifications is considered to be "serious".

As part of its ongoing effort to help alleviate food and water shortages in the region, the Red Cross Society of Eritrea (RCSE), supported by the International Federation, has begun a food distribution programme at five centres in Hagaz, including Hashishy.

Under the scheme, more than 25,000 people will receive 15 kilos of wheat per month, as well as 0.9 litres of oil and 1.2 kilos of lentils. The RCSE is appealing for more funding to enable it to extend its food distribution programme to reach more people in desperate need.

The RCSE has also initiated a number of health, water and sanitation activities in Hagaz. An emergency water trucking service started in February.

In Hashishy, villagers say the food ration has already improved their lives. Halima Abdullah has five children aged between five and 12 years old. Sitting inside her family’s tukul – a traditional thatched hut - she describes her daily struggle to feed her family.

“We give them bread, twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening,” she says. “We have no lunch, no vegetables or meat. It is only enough for basic survival, but we are grateful for it.”

The family moved to Hashishy six years ago, soon after the government built the school to encourage settlement in the area. At that time it was believed there was enough water and fertile soil to sustain the population, but then the drought started.

Halima’s husband is a farmer but, like other farmers in the village, he has nearly given up hope of ever growing enough food for his family. “Every year he prepares the field, but then there is no rain,” says Halima. “Farming is of no use here anymore, farmers are losing their motivation to keep trying.”

Villagers often try to raise money in other ways, such as selling their labour, or livestock. However, there are few opportunities in this isolated community, which is half a day’s walk from the nearest town. Most villagers are forced to rely upon emergency food rations - when they are available.

“We stay in Hashishy because this is our home. Also there is a school here, at least our children can get an education so that they have a chance to change their lives,” Halima says. “They will not become farmers.”

In Hagaz health centre, the tiny figure of Khalid Mohammed sleeps on, oblivious to the nurses gathered around her bed. They explain that Khalid is one of an increasing number of malnourished children in their care.

“At least these children can be looked after,” said Fesseha Abrha, the director of the health centre. “Sadly, we think that in the villages there are many more children who need our help, but we often do not hear about them until it is too late.”

Khalid’s mother is not enthusiastic about returning to Hashishy once her daughter has recovered, but says she has no alternative. Her family lives in the village and her husband is a farmer, with no other skills. “If we go back, she will soon become sick again,” she says. “There is nothing to go back for, but we have little choice.”

Related links:

Eritrea food security appeal: latest operational update
Eritrea: appeals, updates and reports
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