MENDEFERA, 19 March (IRIN) - "The drought is badly affecting our lives," says Sennait Tesfay, a 30-year old mother of two. "I have not been able to prepare a balanced meal for my two children for several months."
As she speaks, her two-year-old son, Tesfayohannes, lies beside her, an intravenous tube feeding him a much needed mix of highly nutritional fluids. For the time being, he is too weak to breastfeed. He wheezes as he breathes, awakened every so often by the hiss of his own respiration.
Sennait brought her fragile son to the Adi Ugri Hospital, a regional referral hospital in the southern province of Debub, two weeks ago. She is but one of hundreds of mothers with wilting children who have begun to trickle into hospitals and health centres across the country in ever growing numbers.
With the world's attention focused elsewhere, aid officials in Eritrea say this tiny nation in Africa's Horn is quietly approaching a humanitarian disaster.
More than two thirds of Eritrea's 3.3 million people are facing the spectre of famine as the country confronts its worst drought since it officially gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Appeals for international assistance began last summer, but the response so far has not been as swift as aid officials and government representatives had hoped. Only 24 percent of the estimated food aid needed has been pledged, while only a fraction of that aid has been received.
Tens of thousands of livestock have died, and the price of those that remain plummets daily. Meanwhile, the price of grains and other foodstuffs has doubled in local markets.
"Generally speaking, the drought is very serious in our region," says Weldemichael Ghebretnsa, the director of regional infrastructure for the province of Debub, where more than 80 percent of the 750,000 population faces severe food shortages. This, despite the fact that the province is normally the country's second most productive breadbasket.
"The response rate is so delayed. It may have some effect on the mortality rate which might have to be upgraded," Weldemichael added.
Last week, United Nations officials based in Asmara warned that the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Eritrea could turn into a "complete catastrophe" unless the international community responds quickly. In paediatric wards across the country, there are foreboding signs of just how bad things could get.
GROWING NUMBERS OF MALNOURISHED CHILDREN
At the Adi Ugri Regional Hospital, doctors say they are beginning to treat a growing caseload of severely malnourished children. Though most mothers bring their children here because of problems other than malnutrition - such as upper respiratory infections and diarrhoea - the underlying issue is almost always a lack of food.
Sennait, for example, brought her son after he seemed incapable of getting over a bad cough. But she waited more than a week first, finally deciding that he wouldn't recover on his own.
Now, he weighs less than 70 percent of what he should for a child of his height, a sign that he is severely malnourished according to international standards of measure.
Eyob Kiflom, one of the doctors responsible for his care, says that in rural areas, many patients come very late, and because severe malnutrition is normally complicated by other illnesses, it can easily lead to death
"We do not have exact statistics," he says. "But many patients, because of these complications, die in fact." Though it is impossible to know for certain, Dr Eyob speculates that already, there have been many infant deaths due to a lack of food which have gone unreported.
Even if mothers brought their children sooner, hospitals would not be equipped to handle the increased caseload. UNICEF officials estimate that public hospitals are currently operating at their capacity. Yet they are feeding only 10 percent of the 10,000 severely malnourished children in need of immediate therapeutic treatment in the country.
Aid agencies are scrambling to train more doctors so they can handle more patients, but without increased assistance it is difficult.
"We don't have enough therapeutic or supplementary food" says Mekonnen Tekle, a registered nurse who works at a health station in May Dma, a small town approximately 30 km west of Mendefera, which refers its worst-off patients to Adi Ugri.
Aid officials say the muted international response is due to a number of complicating factors, among them, the current political situation in the country. President Isayas Afewerki closed the private press in late 2001 and detained a number of government dissidents.
"There definitely is an undercurrent of the unfriendliness that sharpened in the autumn of 2001," says the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator for Eritrea, Simon Nhongo.
Being such a tiny country doesn't help either. Neighbouring Ethiopia, a country almost synonymous with hunger in many donor minds, has had a much stronger response as the country also faces its worst drought since the infamous famine of 1984 which left one million people dead.
"The major concern of people in Europe and North America is this expected crisis in Iraq," says Nhongo. "Most people are too busy to pay attention to the humanitarian crisis in Eritrea."
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