Mid-morning in the main food and grain market in Hagaz, a small town in Eritrea's drought-stricken north. Normally it is the busiest part of the day, but today the market is almost deserted. Many of the stalls are empty, and those with food for sale have no customers.
Osman, a grain trader, chews on a stick from an adai bush and contemplates two sacks of pearl millet and sorghum in front of him. He picks up a handful of the sorghum and lets it run through his fingers like sand. "No one can afford to buy this anymore," he said ruefully. "Farmers have almost nothing to sell and people cannot afford the high prices. This should be harvest time, but it has been the worst month I can remember in the market."
"Farmers used to come here with sacks filled with their grain to sell," says Osman. "Now they come with just one small tin of grain, it is all they have to show for their harvest and a year's work."
Hagaz is typical of markets all over Eritrea. The country is facing a nationwide food shortage following years of conflict, drought and consecutive crop failures, compounded by the almost total failure of last year's rains. In 2002 Eritrea produced less than ten per cent of its cereal needs, water is increasingly scarce and the crisis is set to worsen dramatically in the coming weeks, according to the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET).
For many families the results have been immediate and devastating. The food shortage has caused the rapid breakdown of the local economy, with little food available for sale and prices rising dramatically. Many people have been forced to sell whatever assets they have, such as their livestock. This has resulted in a glut of goats on the market, causing their value to plummet. As the price of grain has doubled, the value of livestock has halved in recent months.
The situation is even worse in some districts, including Hagaz. There, sheep, goats and cattle are perishing due a shortage of water and fodder. According to FEWS NET, up to 80% of livestock is estimated to be at risk of dying from disease and starvation.
The country's pastoralist community has been the hardest hit. Deprived of any other means of support, families are often forced to scavenge in order to earn a little money for food. They cut down the country's dwindling number of trees for firewood to sell, or search for coconut leaves to weave into mats. However, earnings from such time-consuming activities are meagre - and buy less grain as prices increase.
International agencies have warned that at least 2.8 million Eritreans - more than half the population - are experiencing pre-famine conditions. An estimated 1.4 million are already suffering immediate food shortages and malnutrition and according to the latest surveys 15 to 20 per cent of children under the age of five years are malnourished. At least 10,000 of these are severely malnourished.
Saleh Mahmud, the government administrator for the region of Hagaz, said the situation in the area is increasingly desperate: "People are at a critical point. Prices have increased, but their wages have not gone up. They are cutting trees mercilessly to sell firewood and selling their animals at a huge loss. We have no choice, we need help."
In December 2002, the International Federation launched an emergency appeal for nearly 8 million Swiss francs (US$ 5.3 million) to enable the Red Cross Society of Eritrea (RCSE) to assist the people of the northern Anseba region, in which Hagaz is located. The RCSE plans to distribute emergency food aid and clean water to a number of villages, immediately benefiting thousands of people.
"It is very serious," said Eduardo Casetta, the Federation's water and sanitation delegate in Eritrea. "Some children are trekking 12 kilometres to get water, the communities are really suffering and saving every drop of water possible. There is very little they can do to help themselves. They are in one of the worst situations I have seen in Africa."
Casetta emphasised that as well as helping to meet short term needs in Anseba, the RCSE is also working to improve the long term water supply situation in the region, by rehabilitating hand and solar pumps and deepening wells in places where the water table has dropped. Such assistance will be welcomed by local people.
In Hagaz market a group of farmers sit in the morning sunshine. They have come to the market because they have little else to do. They gather in small groups talking quietly, exchanging the latest news about the harvest and their animals. Their stories are sadly familiar.
"I am a farmer and I tried to plant my field, but this year there was no product, there was no rain at all," says Ibrahim Khalid, an elderly man wearing a white turban and leaning on a stick. "We have eaten all the grain we had saved from good years, I have no more animals to sell. I don't have any skills, so I cannot work to feed my family, I can only wait for God to help me."