ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Hunger and Hope In Eritrea

Recurrent cycles of drought and famine may be slowly but steadily ending

At the Ferhen feeding center in central Eritrea, 300 women and children gathered beneath the shade of a stand of acacia trees. Others waited along a dry river bed to weigh their malnourished children and to receive emergency food rations, including oil and concentrated milk-cereal mix.

“Last year about 120 mothers and children came each month. Now we’re up to 300,” said Yosef Hanit, a volunteer with the Catholic Eparchy of Keren, one of Eritrea’s three Eastern Catholic eparchies. “We work long days, often nine hours a day, to distribute the food correctly.”

Many of the women had walked two or three hours, with their children riding on donkeys, from the surrounding villages hidden among the hills. Obtaining enough drinking water often entails a similar three-to five-hour daily effort.

Following the complete lack of rain last year, Eritrea, in the impoverished Horn of Africa, is in the grip of one of the worst droughts in living memory. Two-thirds of the total population of 4.5 million desperately need food, according to government figures. Those affected most include internally displaced persons forced from their homes during the recent border conflict with Ethiopia; 75,000 people of Eritrean origin expelled from Ethiopia; refugees returning from abroad and people with AIDS. In addition, a third of the country’s livestock is severely short of water and fodder; livestock prices have fallen by 30 percent while grain prices have more than doubled in four months.

“Things have been getting worse and worse since 1997,” explained Sister Efret of the Daughters of St. Anne, who works for the Keren Catholic Secretariat.

“Every year there is less and less rain.”

In response, the secretariat has established 15 feeding centers, such as the one in Ferhen, to distribute emergency food supplies to pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under 5 who are less than 80 percent their ideal body weight. Under this program, strict records ensure only the needy receive supplementary food, the reason for weighing the children.

“We must act now,” urged Abune Kidane Yebio, Bishop of Keren. “Children are suffering from low body weight. This will have long-term consequences on their intelligence. Even now many children have problems concentrating.”

Local women have been trained to weigh and measure children and to assist in food distribution. Other measures include better wells and water pumps, agricultural improvements and AIDS counseling. The secretariat has repaired 20 hand pumps and distributed millet, sorghum and barley seeds to more than 8,000 farmers in the Anseba region of northern Eritrea, one of the most severely affected regions.

“We are also developing income-generating programs such as poultry farming,” said Sister Efret. “We don’t want people to become dependent on aid in the long term.”

Five women from 30 villages have each received 15 chickens to encourage egg production. Before receiving the birds, however, the women must attend a workshop conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture on the proper care of poultry. Only then is there a real chance that eggs could become an important supplement to the local diet.

The efforts of the Keren Catholic Secretariat form part of a national program coordinated by the Eritrean Catholic Secretariat. Based in the capital, Asmara, the secretariat responded to the crisis in 2001, launching its first special overseas appeal. The secretariat requested $3.2 million, receiving $2.5 million from foreign donors, including CNEWA. Last year’s appeal was less successful, partly due to a late submission. This year, however, $1.7 million has already been pledged from generous donors.

The response from the international Catholic community to Eritrea’s food crisis has been remarkable. Last November, the United Nations launched an appeal for $163 million in food and other aid to confront this humanitarian crisis. But in the first five months of the appeal, U.N. agencies received just 25 percent of the food aid needed.

The ongoing drought has been exacerbated by a devastating border war with Ethiopia. Although the fighting ended in 2000, the consequences are still being felt in both countries; Eritrea remains highly militarized. Out of a population of some 4.5 million, some 300,000 young men and women have been conscripted to guard the southern border and other sensitive areas.

“These 300,000 people are Eritrea’s most productive,” said Abune Kidane. “Now there are not enough people to farm the land.”

In times of peace, a 15-mile-wide strip of land, stretching 600 miles along Eritrea’s southern border, is one of the most productive areas in the country. But this rich soil has not been farmed since 1998, when it became a security zone. The farmers who cultivated this land have since been displaced to refugee camps elsewhere in the country. Even if the border is demilitarized, it will be years before the land can be safely farmed.

Much of the area is heavily mined: There are explosives left over from Eritrea’s 30-year war for independence (1961-1991). An estimated 250,000 to 300,000 land mines, covering some 250 square miles, were laid by both sides during the two-year border conflict (1998-2000). Clearance work will take many years.

In addition to Eritrea’s current political problems, long-term environmental factors – global warming, deforestation and inappropriate farming practices – all play a role in the area’s plight. A century ago about 30 percent of the country was forested. The once heavily forested uplands are now barren hillsides; only 1 percent of forest remains.

Deforestation has been blamed on a variety of factors, including the construction of traditional hidmo dwellings that are resource-intensive, using thick trunks and tree branches for the main structure and roof. This form of building is now banned. But the demand for fuel wood continues unabated. Loads of firewood, from the few remaining forests in the north, are delivered daily by truck and camel to towns and villages. The 30-year war also contributed to deforestation: To deprive soldiers of cover, incendiary bombs fell on the forests.

When significant rains do fall they leach the hills of their nutrients, further reducing the quality of the land. For several decades the government has attempted to alleviate the problem by using schoolchildren and conscripts to terrace the hillsides. “But,” said Father Uqbagaber Woldeghiorghis, Secretary General of the Eritrean Catholic Secretariat, “this has had little effect on forest cover.

“More needs to be done in the future, but recent activities have concentrated on emergency programs.”

Among long-term development projects, however, there are some signs of hope. At Hagaz Agro-Technical School, in north central Eritrea, agriculturists have achieved a remarkable transformation of a once barren area in just a few years.

“Five years ago this was almost a desert,” said de la Salle Christian Brother, Esayas Tsegay, headmaster of the school, as we walked around acres of fruit trees and, surprisingly, a healthy-looking vineyard.

“We’ve been experimenting with irrigation techniques developed in Israel and, as you can see, we’ve had some success. We are currently building a winery and plan to produce Hagaz wine as a source of income for the school.”

The technical school was founded in 1999 and offers two- and three-year programs for nearly 300 students, male and female, ages 16 to 25. Students can specialize in animal husbandry, veterinary science, soil conservation or reforestation. The school is well-equipped with state-of-the-art laboratories and computer rooms. There is a general air of activity and enthusiasm; many new buildings are under construction.

As elsewhere, however, military priorities are sapping the strength of this hopeful scheme. The school’s first students graduated in 2001 but, explained Brother Tsegay, most were conscripted by the army to police the border. When the border problem is finally resolved, and most conscripts demobilized, he hopes that his former students will benefit from the school’s four-year loan scheme to apply their new skills in this impoverished land.

Long-term social change will come through the youth of this young country, but a change in the weather would not hurt either.

Chris Hellier, a correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, is the author of “Monasteries of Greece,” published by Tauris Parke Books.

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