Eritrea: Warning of ''complete humanitarian catastrophe''

ASMARA, 12 March (IRIN) - The UN has warned that the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Eritrea could turn into a "complete catastrophe" unless more aid is forthcoming.
Simon Nhongo, the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator for Eritrea, on Tuesday urged donors to increase their level of response to the crisis, triggered by a devastating drought in the country.

"My major concern is that delayed responses might turn out to be more costly if the situation deteriorates further by July 2003," he told a press briefing at the UN in New York.

A UN appeal for about US $163 million in food, water and health assistance - launched last November - has obtained a response of only two percent. About 70 percent of Eritrea's 3.9 million population is at risk.

In Asmara, the Eritrean government's emergency relief coordination body and aid officials said they were having difficulty in drawing attention to the drought. Since appeals for help began last year, UN agencies have received only 25 percent of the food aid they need.

The Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC) was hoping to supply those at risk of food shortages with 60 percent of their food needs for the months of February and March, but officials say they were only able to begin partial food aid distributions two weeks ago.

Last month, President Isayas Afewerki accused the donor community of withholding humanitarian assistance for "political reasons". Eritrea closed all private media outlets in 2001, and dozens of prominent journalists and political leaders are being held in prison.

"Donors must de-link any of their political preferences from the humanitarian situation in the country," Simon Nhongo said in a recent interview.

Other problems further complicate the situation. At a meeting of aid representatives, government officials and donor countries in Geneva in January, officials found that some outsiders were not even familiar with Eritrea or the drought there.

"People simply don't know Eritrea," Nhongo said. "When they hear Ethiopia, by its sheer size and the magnitude of the problem, they recognise it."

"What we are saying is that all of us, including the government, are most appreciative of the food that's been pledged so far," he said. "But unfortunately the overall situation is quite desperate."


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