Eritrea

Eritrea: New US, British aid to relieve critical food situation

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ASMARA, 10 June (IRIN) - The government of Eritrea expects that part of the massive increase of emergency aid to Africa promised by Britain and the US would help ease local food scarcity, a senior government official said on Wednesday.

"We welcome any support to the crop shortfall this year," said Yemane Gebremeskel, a director of the office of Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki.

US President George Bush announced on Wednesday an increase of US $674 million for humanitarian crises in Africa, bringing the total US emergency contribution to more than $2 billion.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair simultaneously increased British emergency aid to Africa to a total of $300 million.

A significant proportion of this money is expected to go into food aid in Eritrea, which remains one of the largest recipients of food aid per capita in the world. An estimated two-thirds of its 3.6 million people depend, to varying degrees, on food relief.

Malnutrition among women surveyed between May and July 2004 in four regions of Eritrea ranged between 33 percent and 47 percent, according to a January report by the UN World Food Programme and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

In May, a senior government official warned that unless donors increased their food aid, one million Eritreans would go hungry this year.

"The announcement of the commitments for Ethiopia and Eritrea is good news, but announcements are not enough," said Damien Gugliermina, a humanitarian affairs officer at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Eritrea.

"What we really need is commitment and seeing the money fast," he said. "The hunger season is coming to a peak."

The harvest in 2004 was estimated to be just 85,000 mt, less than half the average of the past 12 years, according to the January report.

Reasons for the poor harvest included insufficient rainfall, persistent drought and a shortage of labour caused by the conscription and national service of an estimated 300,000 Eritreans into the military.

Gebremeskel said the resolution of the border conflict between his country and Ethiopia would go a long way towards improving food security in Eritrea.

"Both the government's capacity to cope with the crop shortfall and the traditional coping mechanisms will be enhanced if the larger picture of the border issue is sorted," he said.

In a peace agreement signed in December 2000 at the end of a two-year border war with Ethiopia, both countries agreed that an independent boundary commission would make a "final and binding" ruling on where the boundary should be. However, Ethiopia subsequently rejected the ruling, and tensions have remained high ever since.

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