Water brings hope to Eritrea’s drought children

Publié: 1 juin 2005 0:00 CET

Aster Solomon of the Red Cross Society of Eritrea

It was like a dream for the people of Dembe Adi Tsegai village to see water running from a nearby water source after the five years of drought. From all corners of the village men, women and children ran immediately to the water point, as if they have never seen water before.

Dembe Adi Tsegai is one of the four villages, with a population of 855, benefiting from the Red Cross Society of Eritrea’s Muruni River water project. The village is located 50 km south-east of Hagaz town, at the base of the western escarpment of the Eritrean highlands.

Like most Eritreans, the people of Dembe Adi Tsegai are farmers dependent on rain-fed crops, or pastoralists.

It is not only the adults that suffered hardship. The prolonged drought has had a direct impact on the lives of the children as well. Fyori, Adhanet, Lemlem and Gidey have forgotten how to play games like children of their age would normally do.

Instead, every day the girls walk 20 to 30 km bearing the adult responsibility of providing water for their families. With the blazing sun and desert climate it is hard to believe that humans are able to survive here.

Only older generations remember the lush green hills and abundant harvests. A drought which started four years ago transformed the landscape into a desert where the main occupation is a daily search for food and water.

Fyori and her friends spend entire days far from their home and are not going to school anymore.

“I stopped going to school at the semester’s break because I spend most of the night and the whole day searching for water,” says Gidey. “I stood fourth last year in my class but this year I had no good performance because I had little time to study. At last I just gave up going to school.”

Negasi Woldu is a teacher at the Kermet Junior School. His students come from six neighbouring villages. He complains that students sleep during classes, they do not do their homework or leave school completely.

“I have been teaching here for four years and students were all right but now it is a discouraging situation. The water problem has put their development on hold,” he explains.

Residents of Dembe Adi Tsegai and nearby villages have a good knowledge of the Red Cross Society of Eritrea because it has helped to provide them with food aid and water through the most difficult periods since 2003.

However, though they still need help, the villagers’ lives have improved. The Red Cross has rehabilitated one borehole that had been out of use for four years. They equipped it with a hand pump. The children are most delighted about its repair.

“The well is only 30 minutes walk away from the village and it takes only four minutes to fill a twenty litres jerry can,” says Lemlem.

Previously the children had to climb the mountain to reach a well, and with decreasing water yield it took them more than one hour to fill their plastic containers. Up there, the water was shared with the animals and had become heavily polluted adding health risks to an already difficult situation, according to Red Cross workers.

The rehabilitated well represents a significant improvement in the lives of the people in the five villages surrounding Dembe Adi Tsegai. Fresh and easily accessible water means much more for children who may now resume their education.

Gidey says with a dream in her eyes: “I am eager to go back to school and have more time for study.”

But when she goes back to class, Gidey will find that many fellow students are still missing. The situation for children, especially the girls, has not improved in many villages in the area. There is still a lot of work to be done for the community members, who will need continued support. The Red Cross of Eritrea is ready to give its support as soon as more funding is secured.

Drought, combined with conflict, produced a food and water crisis in Eritrea. Thousands of people died and many more were displaced. The number of families sacrificing their animals for immediate consumption is increasing. The response from international donors has been insufficient, resulting in a reduction of both ration size and the number of people receiving assistance.

According to the UN World Food Programme the number of vulnerable people in 2005 reached 2.3 million, but only half of them are receiving food aid at the moment.

Between 10 and 20 per cent of all children under age five are malnourished. The country urgently needs 190,000 tonnes of food if it is to provide full rations to all those severely affected by drought, between May and September this year.

The ground water level has decreased from year to year with the failure of rain. Deepening the wells is not a solution any more as the ground water cannot be reached without sophisticated drilling equipment.

The International Federation is assisting the Red Cross Society of Eritrea through a drought appeal launched in January 2005. The appeal for 5.2 million Swiss francs (US$ 4.38 million) entails long- and short-term water, food, agricultural and health activities to attain a sustainable solution through tackling the problem from a number of directions.

Long-term work is focusing on improved food security by facilitating the recharge of ground water levels through construction of check and subsurface dams as well as introducing dry land farming techniques.

With only 16 per cent of the appeal covered so far, the longer-term interventions are at high risk of being compromised if international support is not forthcoming.