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Most Eritreans Face Hunger After 4 Years of Drought, says UN - 2003-06-08

The United Nations World Food Program says 70 percent of Eritrea's population of 2.3 million is threatened by hunger because of four successive years of severe drought. The agency says it urgently needs $51 million to prevent a catastrophe.

The World Food Program calls the situation in Eritrea appalling and extremely worrying because the famine looming in that country is attracting very little attention.

WFP spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume says that when 70 percent of a country's population depends on food aid to survive, that means the country has reached the end of its limits.

"The problem is that the situation does not show any signs of improvement," she said. "We have just had a malnutrition evaluation with other U.N. agencies, NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and the government which shows that malnutrition rates among the kids are more than 21 percent. We know that the alarm level is between 13 and 14 percent. When we reach 15 percent, we know that we are in a crisis situation. Now, it is more than 21 percent. That is really very, very serious."

Eritrea is in particularly dire straits because the expected and much needed rains this spring did not materialize. Ms. Berthiaume says that if the rains fail again this summer, the situation will become catastrophic. This is because there will be no harvest again in November.

In the beginning of the year, the World Food Program appealed for $100 million to help 1.4 million of Eritrea's most vulnerable people. Ms. Berthiaume says the agency has received only $49 million.

"The problem is that donors do not really take into consideration the time factor," said the WFP spokeswoman. "They come to us and say, 'Oh, we promised you that amount of money, you are okay.' Not necessarily, because you know by the time the money that has been pledged to us do materialize in food, this takes some months. And in the meanwhile, people are there, sitting in their bare field, looking at a crop that will not be there and getting hungry."

Ms. Berthiaume says food stocks in Eritrea will be exhausted by the end of July if new contributions are not received quickly. Because of lack of money, she says, the WFP has had to drastically reduce food rations to nearly 1.5 million people who are is desperate shape and in great need of assistance.