Volunteers distribute food as Eritrea drought continues

News and Press Release
Originally published
In drought-stricken Hagaz, everything has been dried by the endless, burning sun. The ground is bare, brown and parched. Great cracks have appeared in the earth, even hardy acacia trees are wilting.
Goats and cattle, evidently weak and very thin, forage uselessly. Most animals, though, have long given up on food and simply stand under trees, completely still, their eyes glazed with the heat and the sheer challenge of survival. Without food or water, shade is their only relief.

Now a virtual desert, it is difficult to believe that anything useful ever grew here. The only greenery on the landscape is the ubiquitous Sodom's Apple, a deceptively lush, but poisonous bush.

But this is a land that once sustained many thousands.

Four years of poor rainfall, followed by the total failure of last year's rains have led to a severe food and water shortage in Hagaz, which lies in the northern Eritrean province of Anseba.

Last year's harvest was a failure -- with the region's farmers producing less than 15 per cent of the needs of the population. Many thousands have been left hungry. They have used up all their stocks of grain and are now dependent on food aid.

The Red Cross Society of Eritrea (RCSE) has been distributing food to more than 25,000 people in Hagaz since March. From June until November -- the most difficult summer months - the number of people receiving monthly rations of wheat, oil and lentils from the RCSE will increase to 45,000.

Regular food has eased the hardship of the drought for many, but humanitarian gestures by individuals working in the community have also played an important role in alleviating suffering.

In particular, the role played by RCSE volunteers has been crucial to the success of the food distribution programme in Hagaz. Most of these unpaid workers are young men and women, some still at school, who are motivated purely by the concern to help others at such a difficult time.

Every month, nearly 40 volunteers travel to the five food distribution centres across the Hagaz region. Working from early in the morning, they hand over supplies of food to village committees, who distribute them to those in need.

Teklemariam Ghoitom, 20, is typical. A mature, smiling young man, dressed in a blue school uniform, Teklemariam has been a Red Cross volunteer for four years and says he is proud of his work for the RCSE. "The people are very happy with the help they are getting, you can see it in their faces when we hand out the food and we must continue like this, until the drought is over."

Teklemariam's friend and classmate, Yonas Kibreab, 18, has been a volunteer for two years. "People need our assistance. I wanted to be a member of a volunteer community, to help where possible. It is very difficult for people in the drought so their happiness makes us happy."

Yonas has a relative living in one of the worst affected villages, Shebek. "My aunt has no water, and no hope of growing food, but it is very difficult for people to leave that place. It is her home. She cannot move to find work as she must stay with her animals."

Some of the volunteers, 19-year-old Mohammed Omar, worked on the previous Red Cross food distribution in Hagaz, three years ago.

"At that time people were hungry and needed help -- but this time around it is far worse. This is the same drought, but three years on. Now they have no food at all," he says. "Before, people were partially self-sufficient and there were coping mechanisms they could resort to. Now they are totally dependent upon relief, they have nothing else. This food distribution is essential - in these rural areas many people have no other way of getting food and water," he adds.

With some weeks to go before the start of the expected summer rains, concern is growing that even donated food stocks will soon run out, and that farmers do not have adequate seeds for planting next year's harvest.

An emergency Federation appeal for just over 8 million Swiss francs (US$ 6 million) for Eritrea, launched in December 2002, has only managed to attract 29 per cent funding.

According to the latest report on the situation issued by the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) Network, "serious and widespread food insecurity still grips Eritrea". FEWS reports that there are only enough food stocks in the country to last two months, although food aid will be needed for at least six months - until November, when the next harvest is due.

According to the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC), 1.4 million people are drought-affected in 2003 and require food aid. Malnutrition amongst children exceeds critical levels in some areas and cereal prices have increased everywhere, FEWS reports.

The local government is grateful for the work that has already been done by the RCSE in Hagaz, but Tesfay Tecle, the head of economic development for the Anseba Regional Administration, said he was anxious that the situation could deteriorate further during the summer. "Until the rainy season begins, things will go from bad to worse. It has become very hot and the need for food and water will grow from now until the next harvest.

"This situation is very, very difficult here," he said.