ASMARA, 27 July (IRIN) - Of all the natural disasters that strike communities and environments, a drought can be the most devastating. If it develops into a full-blown famine or forces people to leave their homes or become dependent on external food aid, drought becomes a humanitarian crisis.
Unlike the more dramatic "acts of God", such as volcanoes, earthquakes or tsunamis, the full impact of a drought is more closely related to a country's ability to respond or mitigate the failure of rains.
Fragile state structures, underdeveloped infrastructure, poor agricultural practices and issues of governance are as important in this equation as the absence of water itself.
Travelling around Eritrea, one often finds young boys digging in dry river beds to find water for their bony animals, or a slow procession of donkeys and their owners carrying water home through the heat of the day.
The water table throughout the country has dropped by several metres, relief workers and government officials say, thanks to a drought that has dragged on for years.
"We have had very, very little rain, especially in the past three or four years," Ali Abdu, Eritrea's information minister, told IRIN in May. "Almost one-third of our population was attacked by that."
Some 2.3 million people in Eritrea, almost two-thirds of the population, depend on varying levels of food aid. And although 80 percent of the population is rural, the country only produced 85,000 mt of cereals in 2004 - just 15 percent of its annual requirement and 47 percent of its average harvest over the last twelve years.
One million Eritreans are likely to go hungry this year, unless donors can step up their food aid, a senior government official said.
While it would be easy to pin the blame on long-term drought and the exhaustion of coping strategies, relief workers in Eritrea say these are not the only reasons for the country's precarious food-security situation.
"Food security is more complicated than getting enough rain, or even producing enough food," said a relief worker who did not want to be named. He felt that the failure to produce adequate food crops since 1998 was also linked to Eritrea's conflict with Ethiopia and its preparations to strengthen defences on the border.
The 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war, which was fought mostly in Eritrean territory, killed between 70,000 and 100,000 people and displaced almost one-third of Eritrea's population.
It also left behind an unpleasant legacy of mines and battered infrastructure throughout the border region, and especially in Eritrea's most fertile region in the southwest.
Relations between the two countries have hardly improved since the end of the conflict. When they signed a peace agreement in December 2000, both countries agreed that an independent boundary commission would make a "final and binding" decision on where the border should be.
However, the Boundary Commission decision, produced in April 2002, was later rejected by Ethiopia.
Three years on, the position of both countries remains essentially the same: Ethiopia says it will demarcate the border but would like to negotiate first (although it appears unwilling to do so). Meanwhile, Eritrea refuses to compromise on an international agreement.
So, how has a border dispute affected Eritrea's rapidly declining food security?
The most obvious impact is the redistribution of resources and manpower: An estimated 300,000 people are currently serving in Eritrea's military instead of contributing to the country's economy. In addition, government sources said, the dispute has forced Eritrea to put a lot of its scarce resources into military spending. Along with fuel shortages and rising prices of consumer goods, the already weak economy has declined.
"We are dealing with four years of consecutive drought," Yemane Gebremeskal, presidential advisor and chief government spokesman, told IRIN in an interview at his office in May. "This [drought] has eroded coping mechanisms and is putting severe pressure on the government. The overall security situation has also [had] an impact."
Following an assessment visit to Eritrea at the end of 2004, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a January 2005 report: "Due to continued critical shortage of labour, the wage rates this year have been observed to be very high.
"Since farmers cannot afford to pay such high wages [.] critical field operations such as weeding have generally been neglected," the WFP/FAO report added.
A separate report issued in April by the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net), said: "The absence of many young men for national mobilisation reduces the range of household income opportunities and coping strategies, such as livestock-raising and off-farm employment."
It is important to out that some of Eritrea's most fertile land is within the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ), a 25-km wide demilitarised zone that runs along Eritrea's southern boundary and is still patrolled by UN peacekeepers.
The TSZ once accounted for a significant proportion of Eritrean food production. Currently, an estimated 50,000 internally displaced Eritreans live away from the TSZ, unable to return to their ruined villages until the last of the landmines planted there during the war are cleared.
Eritrea's borders with both Ethiopia and Sudan remain officially closed while tensions in the region persist. The border with Sudan was closed in late 2002, with both sides accusing each other of supporting armed opposition in the other's territory.
The border closures have affected the agricultural sector in two significant ways, by limiting grazing areas and by restricting access to markets.
Pastoralists can no longer follow rains across national boundaries. Regional tensions have severely limited the coping strategies of pastoralists, who were once the powerhouse of Eritrean agriculture. The government has been encouraging pastoralists to settle, but adaptation has not been easy, sources say.
"We have not had a census for a long time, but pastoralism is still a very important sector," a source said. "Normally, if they move, they go in search of pasture. But now very few are moving because of the closed borders. So the pressure on forage is worse than ever before," he added.
The closed borders have also blocked a key supply of food, driving food prices higher.
"The loss of access to Ethiopian and Sudanese food markets, on which Eritrea traditionally depended for about one-third of its primary food supply, may have contributed to the current escalation of food grains prices in Eritrea," said the FEWS Net report.
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