Global Policy Forum

Eritrea: Slight Improvement,

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
March 17, 2004

Despite a marginal improvement in Eritrea's humanitarian situation, the country still faces very serious problems, the UN said on Wednesday. Simon Nhongo, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator, told IRIN that years of sustained drought and the effects of war had exhausted people's coping mechanisms to the extent that a slight improvement would have no tangible benefits.

About two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line, and in some small rural towns the figure leaps up to 80 percent due to the dislocation of the population and the return of hundreds of thousands of Eritreans from Sudan. Most of them had been there for years, after they fled during Eritrea's 30-year liberation war which broke out in 1961.

Within Eritrea, there are still 58,000 people displaced from the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia. Aid workers said it was very unlikely they would be relocated before the stalemate in the Eritrea-Ethiopia border demarcation was resolved. Nhongo expressed particular concern over the malnutrition rates in the country which, he said, exceeded the danger level of 15 percent.

A recent nutritional survey, carried out by the government, UN and NGOs, found that the regions of Gash Barka and Northern Red Sea had the highest prevalence of malnutrition at 15.6 percent and 16.9 percent respectively. Mothers were particularly affected, suffering 40 percent malnutrition rates. "Malnutrition, exhaustion of coping mechanisms, the receded water table, lack of foreign currency and general poverty are all major factors," Nhongo said.

He urged donors to continue supporting Eritrea, saying the UN had learnt to lobby early, following a disappointing response to its annual appeal in the first half of last year. The response picked up in the latter half of the year, due to extensive shuttling between donor capitals by UN humanitarian officials and the appeal. The appeal was finally 77.3 percent funded, which Nhongo said was very impressive. The momentum, however, had to continue into this year. "People who are hungry in Eritrea are just expected to die, whereas in Iraq nobody has to die as there are stockpiles of food - some of the food has even expired," Nhongo pointed out.

This year's appeal is currently 17 percent funded - most of this being for food aid. The food requirements amount to 66 percent of the appeal, but officials have noted the urgent need this year for non-food items to tackle burning issues such as lack of water and health care. The number of affected people countrywide currently stands at 1.9 million (out of a population of around 3.5 million), down from 2.3 million last year. A slight improvement, but not really that significant, Nhongo stressed.

He added that the situation was slowly moving from emergency to development. The Eritrean government has recently approved a three-year Integrated Recovery Programme - a transitional plan aimed at providing an economic foundation for longer-term development. But the ongoing "no-war, no-peace" situation meant a continuing shortage of human resources in both the private and public sectors. "Peace is the most pervasive factor affecting development, and this can't come without demarcation," Nhongo stresses.

Border demarcation has been at an impasse ever since Ethiopia rejected an international boundary ruling placed the disputed village of Badme - the flashpoint of the war - in Eritrea.

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Ethiopia and Eritrea
More Information on Poverty and Development in Africa


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