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Eritrea Food Situation Improves with Long-Awaited Rain - 2003-09-14

The United Nation's World Food Program (WFP) says the situation in Eritrea is improving, because rain is finally falling in the drought-stricken country.

While the rain level is still below average, the United Nations says it is good enough to create a better harvest than the country has seen in years. Despite this good news, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, Christiane Berthiaume, says many people in Eritrea will still need help.

Recent studies show that two-thirds of Eritrea's population of 3.5 million people live below the poverty line.

Ms. Berthiaume says many Eritrean children are malnourished because of several years of severe drought. In the region of Gash Barka, a formerly rich agricultural area, she said that up to 25 percent - an alarmingly high percentage - of children under the age of five are malnourished. She said WFP is currently feeding 600,000 drought victims, but the figure is likely to go up to 800,000 by October.

"Now there is going to be a harvest in November and December, so with a bit of luck, this harvest will be good, and people will be able to feed themselves for awhile," she said. "But we still will need to be there, because the level of poverty is so important in that country that we need to help these people."

Ms. Berthiaume said it probably will be more difficult to get money to feed the Eritrean people now that they are in a phase of recovery. She said donors tend to respond more generously when there is a crisis.

"The people are on the way to recovery," added Ms. Berthiaume. "But that does not mean that they are recovered. So we need to help them. We need to give them the food, so that they will not eat the seeds. We need them to plant the seeds, not to eat the seeds."

The World Food Program plans to start a school feeding program for 80,000 children in Eritrea when they go back to school next month. It says it will need funds for that, as well as for programs to assist hundreds of thousands of drought victims, internally displaced people and refugees who have returned from years of exile in neighboring Sudan.