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Mercy Corps Responds to Hunger and Drought in Eritrea

April 2, 2003

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    Villagers gather for a community meeting before a food distribution in the Afa’bet sub-zone in March 2003. Photo: Mercy Corps Eritrea Photo:

In five regions of northern Eritrea, Mercy Corps has begun to distribute critical food commodities to 150,000 drought-affected people.

On August 28th, 2002, the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC) issued an urgent appeal for international assistance in the face of the worst drought in two decades. Additional appeals followed in subsequent months, each stressing that the drought would exacerbate the consequences of Eritrea's recent border war with Ethiopia and the chronic malnutrition that is endemic to the Horn of Africa. As thousands of domestic animals perished and crop-failure became widespread, government officials cited early 2003 as the period in which outside intervention was needed in order to avert a humanitarian crisis.

In January 2003, Mercy Corps was among the first organizations to respond. Vessels carrying commodities from the United States Agency for International Development's (USAID) office of Food for Peace (FFP) began reaching the Port of Massawa in late January and early February, bearing the first portion of Mercy Corps' 24,740 MT consignment. By early March, the distribution of general rations (including wheat, vegetable oil, and lentils) to 150,000 people had begun.

Targeting several of Eritrea's hardest hit regions (the Afa'bet, Karura, Nakfa, Adobha of the Northern Red Sea Zone and Habero of the Anseba Zone), Mercy Corps' Northern Red Sea Food, Nutrition, and Community Water Program operates from a field office in the Sahel region of Eritrea. Partnering with ERREC, local administrators, and village elders, Mercy Corps will continue to oversee the distribution of commodities for eleven months while actively monitoring household use and encouraging effective and equitable beneficiary targeting.

However, Mercy Corps recognizes that no emergency intervention is complete without attention to the underlying causes of the humanitarian crisis at hand. In an attempt to address the chronic malnutrition and drought that plague Eritrea, the Northern Red Sea Food, Nutrition, and Community Water Program compliments the distribution of general rations with nutritional and water resource programming.

Working through Village Health Committees (VHCs), Mercy Corps conducts targeted distributions of supplementary food to children under five years of age who are either moderately malnourished or recovering from severe malnutrition. These VHCs are also the forums in which nutritional best practices are disseminated and discussed. At the same time, Mercy Corps meets with community leaders in order to identify the most pressing freshwater needs and increase communal access to cleaner, more abundant water with systems that have the capacity to adjust to future water shortages or droughts.

Mercy Corps' relationship with Eritrea dates to the mid-1980s, when the agency provided medical and food assistance to Eritrean refugees in the Sudan. In the mid-1990s, Mercy Corps partnered with a national NGO to construct soil and water conservation structures around Asmara. In June 2000, Mercy Corps opened its Asmara office. Initial activities provided aid to displaced and war-affected persons in partnership with ERREC and the Ministry of Health.

Today, Mercy Corps conducts an Education Program, a Food, Nutrition, and Community Water Program, and a Livestock Program. Mercy Corps programming spans five of Eritrea’s six Zones and serves over 320,000 people.

Josh DeWald is the Food, Nutrition & Community Water Program Manager for Mercy Corps in Eritrea