Eritrea

Desperation increases as Eritrea's wells run dry

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by Caroline Lees in Asha Kurak, Eritrea
Even before reaching the small village of Asha Kurak, visitors are likely to meet most of its inhabitants. Men, women and children, along with their cattle and goats, spend hours each day waiting for their turn to draw water from the village well.

The process of collecting water is becoming increasingly time-consuming. The well, which has supplied water to surrounding villages since it was dug by Italian settlers more than 50 years ago, has virtually dried up in the past few months.

"The water level has been dropping slowly over the recent years of poor rains," says Georges Mohammed Rikab, an elderly villager. "But this year there was no rain so the nearby river did not flood, now the water level in the well has gone down by nearly ten metres."

As buckets are brought to the surface, villagers display their pitiful contents. Cloudy, dirty water, barely fit for animals, is carefully poured into containers to be carried home.

The water is so contaminated that disease is inevitable. Diarrhea and other illnesses are common in the village. But there is little choice. If a family is lucky it can collect a few litres which it will use to drink, cook with and wash in. For now there is just enough to meet basic survival needs, but the villagers know that the supply is unlikely to last for much longer.

Asha Kurak is just one of many villages in the region of Hagaz, in the province (zoba) of Anseba, 100 km north west of the capital Asmara, which have been badly affected by the current drought in Eritrea.

The result of the failure of consecutive rainy seasons since October 2001, this year's drought is the worst since independence in 1993.

Most regions of Eritrea received less than 25 per cent of the average rainfall this year. The shortage has severely affected harvests and the availability of drinking water. International agencies have warned that at least 2.8 million Eritreans - more than half the population - are experiencing pre-famine conditions. More than one million are estimated to be suffering immediate food shortages and malnutrition.

The drought has come at a particularly bad time for a country still struggling to recover from the recent two-year border conflict with Ethiopia.

In Asha Kurak, Georges describes how the villagers attempted unsuccessfully to dig deeper into the ground themselves to reach the water table. In the meantime they have been forced to scrape the muddy bottom of the well for whatever water they can find. "We desperately need help," he says. "Soon the well will be totally dry."

Last month the International Federation launched an international appeal for nearly 8 million Swiss francs, (just over US$5 million), to enable the Red Cross Society of Eritrea (RCSE) to assist the people of Anseba, one of the worst affected regions in Eritrea.

It is hoped that communities such as Asha Kurak will benefit from the appeal in two ways. The RCSE will distribute emergency food rations and provide health, water and sanitation services to 41,500 people in the area for the next nine months.

But the society also intends to examine ways to alleviate the region's water problems in the longer term. It has invited three international water and sanitation experts to visit Anseba to examine ways to rehabilitate water points and provide lasting solutions.

"The region has been affected by drought for a number of years," says Tesfay Tecle, head of economic development for Anseba Regional Administration.

"This year was the worst yet. The rains started late, stopped early and were small. The result is that the water table has dropped from eight to 40 metres," he adds.

Tecle welcomes the RCSE's plans to assist communities in the region to find longer-term solutions to their water problems: "Emergency solutions are important, especially in such a crisis, but we need to think about development too."

"We are facing months before the next rainy season, and we cannot even be sure that it will rain then. In the meantime the situation can only get worse. With no food the people are already becoming too weak to walk far to collect their water," he says.

Tecle says there are already signs of growing desperation, with people leaving their villages, looking for other ways of finding food or earning money. "The streets of the region's towns are full of people from the countryside selling eggs or hot tea - anything to raise a few nakfa. The situation is very, very difficult," he said.

Tecle explains that the government would welcome international assistance. "I am very glad to hear that the RCSE can help us. It will make an enormous difference to our communities."

High on a hill overlooking Asha Kurak, Fereja Adala lives with her elderly mother and two young children. Fereja's husband was killed in the border conflict with Ethiopia and the family has been badly affected by the drought.

Sitting outside her tukul - a typical village house made of mud and straw - she explains how desperate she feels. "Our harvest failed and we do not have enough food for the children," she says.

"My mother collects wood to sell when she can, but that work is very difficult. We have no skills so we do not know how else we can provide food. We are not living, we are barely existing."