More than 60 percent of the population - 2.3 million people - are dependent on food aid. To reduce dependency on emergency food assistance and improve the ability of rural populations to adapt to recurrent drought conditions, agricultural inputs such as seeds, farming tools, animal feed and veterinary support are also needed, according to the UN agency.
Last year's meagre harvest has already been exhausted and the hunger season, which arrived two months early in March, is expected to continue until the next harvest in November. Many households could be forced to consume their limited stocks of seed and sell or eat their breeding animals.
No war, no peace
This year FAO has distributed 400 tonnes of wheat bran for animals belonging to around 2 300 families displaced during the 1998-2000 conflict with Ethiopiawho have now returned to their villages in the border region of Gash Barka.
Recurrent drought and the volatile security situation make this region particularly vulnerable, and animals are facing a severe shortage of feed as a result of the depletion and degradation of traditional rangeland areas.
The FAO Emergency Unit in Eritreahas rehabilitated 12 veterinary clinics inside the temporary security zone along the border with Ethiopia, which were seriously damaged during the conflict. These activities have been funded by the Governments of Sweden, the Netherlandsand the United States.
FAO has also supported improvement of forage land and has distributed veterinary drugs, dairy feed, cereal seed and tools to drought- and war-affected farmers.
Although Eritreaand Ethiopiasigned a peace agreement in December 2000, tensions remain over their still-disputed border.
With large numbers of men doing compulsory national and military service requirements, there is a shortage of skilled manpower.
"In some areas, more than 50 percent of households are headed by women, who are often barred from agricultural activities such as ploughing," said Marco Falcone, FAO Emergency Coordinator for Eritrea.
'Only way out'
FAO is currently procuring seeds for the June planting season for distribution to 27 000 poor, drought-affected families in the main crop production regions of Gash Barka, Debub and Anseba.
"But importing seeds only solves the problem for a year or two," said Falcone. "Promoting local production of quality seeds is the only way out of the current situation, particularly given the rather fragile agro-ecology of Eritrea, the non-availability on the international market of adapted varieties and the current poor quality of local seeds."
FAO is supporting conservation and promoting multiplication of locally adapted varieties of wheat, sorghum and pearl millet in order to refresh the germplasm of the most common crops in Eritrea.
A new FAO project, funded with nearly $500 000 from the Government of Sweden in response to the 2005 UN Consolidated Appeal for the country, is helping farmers resume crop production through distribution and multiplication of good quality cereal seeds.
Assistance includes seeds, tractor services for land preparation, fertilizer, training and technical support to 500 farmers. FAO will buy seed from these farmers after harvest to distribute in the area during the 2006 planting season to more than 13 000 other farming families.
In parallel, the European Commission Humanitarian Office has agreed to fund an
$800 000 FAO project to support similar activities, as well as livestock through animal feed distribution.
FAO 2005 appeal for Eritrea: http://www.fao.org/reliefoperations/en/appeals/51466/highlight_51535.html
FAO emergency relief and rehabilitation: http://www.fao.org/reliefoperations/en/index.html