The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says Eritrean food stocks have run out after four years of successive drought. The humanitarian agency says Eritreans are in desperate need of international assistance.

The International Red Cross estimates 2.3 million people, or two thirds of Eritrea's population, will need food assistance this year. The agency is appealing for nearly $4.4 million to help 55,000 people in 17 villages in Hagaz sub-district over eight months. Other private and United Nations aid agencies will assist the rest of the population.

Red Cross spokesman, Roy Probert, says four years of successive drought have depleted Eritrea's food stock. He says the lack of food is taking a toll on the population with a marked increase in levels of malnutrition.

"In some regions, it is as high as 20 percent of all children have chronic malnutrition," Mr. Probert says. "In fact, 50 percent of all children in Eritrea are undernourished. And the country also has one of the highest levels of maternal malnutrition in the world-over 50 percent which is quite a shocking figure. Equally, the use of the water that does exist is also not very carefully managed and a lot of people are drinking contaminated water, which obviously also leads to quite serious illnesses, like diarrhea and other chronic skin ailments."

Mr. Probert says previous Red Cross interventions in Eritrea have averted starvation. He adds a similar operation is needed now. Besides delivering food aid, he says aid workers are trucking in clean water supplies and providing farmers with seeds and tools.

But, he says these yearly emergencies cannot continue. He says the Red Cross, along with the government and other aid agencies, is working on long-term strategies to better manage the country's scarce water resources.

"There is a whole range of things we can do," Mr. Probert says. "One might be improving dry soil farming techniques, perhaps using drought-resistant crops, better harvesting of rain water. I think there is far too much water wasted. So, we are looking at ways of harvesting rain fall. That way minimizing waste, but also ensuring the quality of the water that is caught. Rehabilitating water points and bore holes and wells."

Mr. Probert notes countries in the Horn of Africa are going to be beset with droughts for the foreseeable future. He says it is imperative they improve their water supply and develop new and better farming methods.