Eritrea in urgent need of aid as malnutrition spreads

by Caroline Lees in Ad Fakay, Eritrea
Meriem Idris Hamid sits in the shade of her straw hut, a baby whimpering softly on her lap. Her two other children cling to her side.

Like their mother, the children are thin and listless. They survive on one plate of watery shiro - a paste made from beans - each day, and their inadequate diet is taking its toll.

The family live in Ad Fakay, a small village on the dry, dusty plains of Hagaz, in the province (zoba) of Anseba, in Eritrea's drought-stricken north.

Meriem's husband is a farmer, but she has not seen him for days. After several years of poor rainfall, the rains failed completely this year. With nothing to harvest and no food for his family, he left to search for coconut leaves to weave into a mat to sell. He may be away for weeks to earn a few nakfa - barely enough to buy one day's supply of bread for his children.

In his absence, Meriem and her children are struggling to survive. "If my children ask for food, I have to tell them there is nothing for them. I have no choice," she says quietly, her sad, weary features partly covered by a brightly coloured shawl.

The village, three kilometres from the nearest well, is an inhospitable place. There is little relief from the heat and harsh sunshine. Acacia bushes provide a little shade, but their sharp thorns lie everywhere, partly buried in the sandy ground.

A field, with the dried remains of a failed crop of sorghum still visible, serves as a sad reminder of the disastrous season.

Tesfamariam Gebremicael, Anseba branch secretary of the Red Cross Society of Eritrea (RCSE), surveys the scene. "After a number of years of low rainfall, this year's total failure of the rains has left many villages with no food and nearly a quarter of the region's population is estimated to be suffering acute malnutrition," he says.

"Those most affected include babies, children and women, but nearly everybody in the region is in need of immediate assistance. Apart from the widespread malnutrition we have also seen an increasing number of cases of disease caused by the shortage of water." he adds. "We are appealing to the international community to intervene urgently, we need to save lives."

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

The entire country has been affected by the devastating drought. Most regions of Eritrea received less than 25 per cent of the average rainfall this year and 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 country's pastoralist community is the hardest hit. The number of livestock - mainly goats, sheep and cattle - has diminished in some districts by up to 20 percent from 2001. Cereal production is at its lowest level since independence nine years ago, and will only cater for 15 per cent of the country's food needs, according to United Nations agencies.

With animals dying due to the lack of fodder, and their fields lying fallow and useless, Many of Ad Fakay's 1000 inhabitants have little else to do but spend their days in the shade of their tukul's - the typical Eritrean village house, made from mud and straw.

For Meriem's neighbour, Saleh Mohammed Dirar, his wife and two young sons, life has changed since the drought. Saleh, a farmer, has no crop to harvest this year, his wife is sick and can no longer make the journey to fetch the family's water. Their two sons have stopped going to school, they were too weak to concentrate - or even to play with their friends.

"Normally I would have harvested my pearl millet by now," said Saleh. "But this year I have nothing to show for my work. I can do little but wait for God to help us."

Like Meriem's husband, Saleh has been forced to find other ways to feed his family. Every few days he scours the surrounding plains for firewood. When he has enough for two bundles he walks for three hours into town to sell them. When business is good he can earn four nakfa (about 20 cents) every three days. But with competition for the dwindling supply of firewood in the area increasing, the work is becoming more difficult.

"We have tried to farm our land, but nothing will grow," says Mohammad Ibrahim Kibud, the village representative in Ad Fakay, sipping a glass of tea with a group of other men gathered by the village shop. "Our main source of livelihood used to be our animals, but because we can no longer feed them, they are dying. Our cows and oxen are already dead, the goats are following."

Mohammed is also a farmer, and the father of eleven children. "I have nothing to do now so I spend most of my time here, seeking news. We discuss the drought and how many of our animals have died, but our main topic is food, because we have none and cannot feed our families. We are helpless, all we can do now is wait for a miracle."