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A Drought Like No Other in Eritrea

December 9, 2002

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    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps Photo:

"I never even imagined that a drought could be this bad. It's worse than 1984-85 (when rock stars from around the world formed "Band Aid" to raise money for Ethiopians and Eritreans dying of starvation). Most of our animals have died or we've had to sell them because we had nothing to feed them. We have nothing left. If our government doesn't bring us food, we will all die here."

This statement in early November from a village elder in the Eritrean village of Ila Babu was heard repeatedly during a recent assessment mission by Mercy Corps. It was uttered by gray-haired men who have seen many years, have known hardship as a way of life and are used to living their lives on the edge.

Ila Babu, located 50 kilometers east of the Sudan border in northern Eritrea, stretches the definition of "remote". To get there from Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea, one has to contend with 12 hours of bone-jarringly rugged roads that perpetually activate the locking mechanism of the vehicle's safety belts, pinning you to your seat. The drive takes you through rocky, sandy deserts and mountains occasionally spotted with stunted, thorny acacia trees and the sun-bleached bones and sun-dried hides of camels and goats that couldn't survive another day.

"We were complaining about the drought last year," said Mr. Ali, a Ministry of Local Government representative in the village of Adobha, near Ila Babu. "But things were better then. At least our livestock survived. It is surprising how the people here are surviving."

The reality, though, is that some people are not surviving. The drought has severely diminished food production in its two breadbasket provinces, Gash Barka and Debub. An estimated1.4 million people - more than a third of the country's population Ð are expected to need food aid in the upcoming months.

Records from the Adobha Health Center show that six young children died there during the last two weeks of August of severe malnutrition. Medical staff reported that all children coming to the health center were at least moderately malnourished. A lack of staff and supplies prevented the health center from admitting most of them for treatment. Only those that struck the perverse balance of being near death but still within arm's reach of life make the cut. Medical staff said that the number of child malnutrition deaths had doubled in the past two months and was likely to double again before the end of the year.

Even Adobha, though, manages to eke out a bit of good news once in awhile. When Mercy Corps visited the area in July, it met a 10-month-old boy who weighed just 1.5 kg and was near death. On its recent visit, Mercy Corps enquired about the boy, expecting the worst, only to find that the medical staff had saved his life using only powdered milk that they purchased with their own money. The boy's life clearly is still in danger but, having beat the odds once, there's reason to believe that he can keep doing it.

Not all of those who have been or will be affected by the drought are so lucky. And the drought still is in its early stages. Without appropriate action, the world once again could be seeing photos of Eritrean children that shocked the world into responding to the innovative efforts of Band Aid. The United Nations recently launched an appeal for $163.4 million for Eritrea, mostly for food aid for drought-affected people.

For its part, Mercy Corps is planning food distributions and maternal/child health projects for needy people in northern Eritrea in addition to continuing to operate a school feeding program that provides high-energy biscuits to 35,000 children each school day. These projects will respond both to immediate food shortages and longer term issues such as nutrition education, improved health care and drought mitigation that will help people in Adobha and Ila Babu protect themselves and their children against future droughts.

Mercy Corps began relief and development support to Eritrea in the mid-1980s with a four-year program based in Sudan that included emergency relief to Eritrean refugees in Sudan. From 1995-1997, Mercy Corps worked with the Kale Hiwot Church to carry out soil and water conservation activities. In 2000, Mercy Corps provided supplied kerosene stoves, fuel cans and oral rehydration salts to thousands of Eritrean families displaced by conflict.