Update on the current drought situation in Eritrea

Severe drought conditions caused by two consecutive years of limited or erratic rainfall have led to a precarious humanitarian situation in three of the six Administrative Zones in Eritrea. The affected Zones are Anseba, North Red Sea and South Red Sea. According to the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Committee (ERREC) a total of 367,000 people in these three Zones are in need of food aid and other basic humanitarian services. The Government of Eritrea and UN humanitarian agencies fear that the humanitarian situation in the drought-affected areas will deteriorate, if no adequate preventative measures are taken in a number of sectors. At present, the ability of the Government and UN humanitarian agencies to respond adequately to the growing needs in the affected areas is hampered by a lack of earmarked funds and resources.


The arid and semi-arid of Zones of Anseba, North Red Sea and South Red Sea have experienced two consecutive years of limited or erratic rainfall resulting in drought conditions during 1998 and 1999. The mentioned regions are prone to drought and are grain deficit areas primarily inhabited by nomadic and agro-pastoralist communities who, even at the best of times, rely on grain supplies from surplus areas. During the past two years, agro-pastoralist communities in the drought-affected areas were either unable to cultivate crops due to drought, or saw their crops fail due to limited or erratic rainfall. Inadequate or lack of rain also impacted negatively on the growth and production of animal fodder. Consequently, milk production that contributes considerably to household food baskets, dropped sharply.

Under normal circumstances, grain is procured by the Government from the Debub and Gash Barka Zones and sold in the deficit areas. However, in 1999 many farmers in the Gash Barka and Debub zones were forced to abandon their homes and farmlands due to insecurity caused by the border-conflict. As a result, grain production in these two grain producing regions decreased, and prices of grains in the drought-affected areas escalated by as much as 30 percent. At the same time, it is estimated that over the past two years livestock prices have decreased relatively by as much as 17%. Affected households in the drought-stricken areas have been forced to sell livestock in order to purchase food commodities. Due to the continued shortage and exorbitant prices of grain, the livestock/grain terms of trade have deteriorated to an extent that affected households are compelled to sell a large number of livestock in order to purchase their regular requirements of grain. The sale of livestock is generally considered the last coping mechanism and it is feared that the increased sale of livestock will eventually deplete livestock assets and make affected households more destitute and food insecure in the longer term.

In addition, it has been observed that affected households have started to migrate to more food secure areas or to urban centers in search of wage employment. Humanitarian actors fear that this exodus could increase within the near future, if no adequate assistance is provided.

Besides food insecurity, the protracted drought conditions, in combination with the effects of the border-conflict, have led to an increasing number of problems and constraints in sectors such as health, water and sanitation and education. Health officials in the affected areas report that malnutrition, morbidity and mortality have increased over the past two years due to the prevailing circumstances. The drought conditions have further led to a sharp reduction in the availability of safe drinking water and affected populations and their livestock are increasingly forced to make use of the same, limited number of water sources. The unsanitary conditions created by this development have reportedly led to an increase in water-borne diseases. Drop-out rates and absenteeism at schools in the affected areas have also increased over the past two years due to migration of affected households to other parts of the country and the fact that an increasing number of children are forced to search for temporary labor to support their families.

In sum, the humanitarian situation in the affected areas can be characterized as a fragile ‘’threshold’’ situation. Widespread famine and disease outbreaks have not occurred yet, due to the commendable efforts of the Government to mitigate the effects of drought by providing assistance from its limited resources. The traditional coping mechanisms of the affected populations have also contributed to the prevention of a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe. However, there are growing concerns on the side of the Government and the United Nations that humanitarian conditions in the affected areas could deteriorate further within the next few months. These concerns stem from the following main factors:

  • The traditional coping mechanisms of the affected households have been severely strained over the past two years. Many affected households have no or little livestock and other assets left and depend fully on external assistance. It is becoming increasingly clear that the prolonged character of the current drought-conditions has reduced the resilience and self-reliance of the affected populations to a minimal level.
  • The prolonged drought-conditions have not only caused food insecurity, but are also leading to an increasing number of related problems and constraints in the health, water & sanitation and education sectors, i.e. the humanitarian implications of the current drought have become broader and more complex.
  • The ability of the Government and UN Agencies to respond adequately and promptly to the increasing humanitarian needs in drought-affected areas is currently being impeded by a lack of resources due to the limited donor response to the Government and UN Country Team Appeals for humanitarian assistance.

Mission of the Special Envoy Ms. Catherine Bertini

On 30 March, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Ms. Catherine Bertini, the Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme, as his Special Envoy on the Drought in the Horn of Africa. The Special Envoy was given the task to raise awareness and understanding of the drought situation in the Horn of Africa among the international community, and to provide recommendations on how to strengthen the humanitarian response and mobilize donor support.

As part of her assignment Ms. Catherine Bertini visited Eritrea from 15 - 17 April. Other countries she visited as part of her regional tour included Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya. She was accompanied by senior officials from the World Food Programme, UNICEF, World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

On 16 April, the delegation of the Special Envoy visited the drought-affected Anseba Zone together with representatives of the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC) and members of the UN Country Team to assess the impact of the drought on the humanitarian situation. In the village of Giset the Special Envoy and her mission members talked extensively to affected households and local officials. The mission learned that agricultural production in the area had been minimal during the past two years due to limited and erratic rainfall. In addition, the mission observed that the traditional coping mechanisms of the local population had been almost exhausted due to the prolonged drought conditions. It appeared that a majority of the households in the village had been forced to sell livestock in order to obtain cash to purchase much needed food commodities. While talking to the press at the end of her field visit, the Special Envoy noted that the humanitarian situation in the drought-affected areas in Eritrea was precarious and fragile and that urgent additional preventative measures were required to avert the onset of famine conditions, large-scale malnutrition and disease outbreaks. She further noted that food aid alone would not be sufficient to improve the humanitarian situation and stressed that humanitarian interventions in drought-affected areas should comprise the provision of safe water, basic health care, and support to livestock.

In a meeting with the UN Country Team, the Special Envoy and her mission reviewed the current drought situation with the various UN agencies and discussed ways to enhance humanitarian interventions in the affected areas. On 17 April, the Special Envoy held meetings with a number of Government officials, including the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Transport, Agriculture, and Local Government, as well as the Commissioner of ERREC. At these meetings the Special Envoy praised the efforts made by ERREC and the concerned line-ministries to meet the needs of drought-affected populations and other vulnerable groups in Eritrea. In addition, the Special Envoy discussed how the international community could further assist the Government in preventing a deterioration of the humanitarian situation. Also on 17 April, the Special Envoy and her team met with Asmara-based donor representatives. The Special Envoy provided the donor community with a number of preliminary findings obtained during her regional tour and received information on present and possible future donor contributions to humanitarian assistance programmes in Eritrea.

Humanitarian Interventions

The Emergency Appeal issued by the Government of Eritrea in January of this year targets 366,989 drought victims in Anseba, North Red Sea, South Red Sea and the northern part of Gash Barka. The appeal contains a number of proposed interventions in drought-affected areas. Besides the provision of 46,000 MT of food aid, the Government appeals for funds to provide supplementary feeding and support in the water and sanitation sector. Further, the Government Appeal includes a proposal to strengthen health facilities in the affected areas through the provision of drugs and medical equipment. Lastly, the Government Appeal outlines the need for agricultural inputs in support of destitute and impoverished farmer communities. To date, the Government of Eritrea has not received the funds to initiate the proposed interventions.

The UN Country Team Appeal, which was launched in January of this year, includes three agency proposals for humanitarian assistance in drought-affected areas. WFP appeals for US$ 11,330,445 to provide 25,000 MT of emergency food aid to 212,000 persons in the North Red Sea and Anseba Zones. A pledge of US$ 2 million of the Government of the Netherlands has been the only donor response towards this proposed intervention so far. The UN Country Team Appeal further includes a FAO proposal to support drought-affected farmers through the provision of seeds and agricultural tools. The total budget of this proposed intervention amounts to US$ 717,332. In addition, FAO appeals for US$ 159,000 to assist drought-affected agro-pastoralist families through the installation of new boreholes to meet their water requirements and those of their livestock. To date, FAO has not yet received the funds to commence the envisaged programme interventions.

As mentioned above, a lack of earmarked funds and resources currently impedes the ability of the UN to assist the Government in addressing the humanitarian needs of drought-affected populations. However, in view of the growing concerns about an imminent deterioration of the conditions in the affected areas, UN agencies in Asmara are currently discussing with their respective donors, ERREC and the concerned line-ministries which immediate measures can be taken to address the most urgent needs using existing resources. As part of this strategy, UNICEF intends to commence provision of supplementary food to drought affected areas until food contributions to WFP are received. UNICEF further plans to take a number of quick-impact measures in the water and sanitation sector in villages with an acute shortage of water. Furthermore, UNICEF intends to support the health sector through the provision of essential drugs, ORS and immunization services. WFP is currently arranging for the borrowing of food from contributions meant for war-affected populations to assist the Government in meeting the immediate food needs among drought-affected communities. This arrangement is backed-up by the recent Dutch pledge of US$ 2 million for food aid to drought-affected areas.

In addition to these immediate measures, the UN humanitarian agencies in Asmara, ERREC and concerned line-ministries are currently conducting additional assessments of the non-food needs in drought-affected areas. These assessments are expected to generate more up-to-date, in-depth and comprehensive information on the scope of the humanitarian needs in the non-food sector as well as additional funding requirements to address these needs in the medium and longer term.