Martin Plaut and Mirjam van Reisen
The Horn of Africa is facing its most severe drought in decades. ‘The worst drought in Ethiopia for 50 years is happening right now’, warned John Graham, Save the Children’s Country Director in Ethiopia.
More than 10 million people will face severe food shortages in 2016. It is a message echoed by aid agencies and the United Nations.
The BBC Clive Myrie to report from northern Ethiopia. ‘This year the rains failed,’ he told audience from the town of Kobo. ‘The UN says in one area two babies are dying every day.’
TV footage has been accompanied by urgent appeals for aid, similar to those issued during the last great famine in 1984-85.
But drought is no respecter of borders. While Ethiopia has faced up to the scale of the crisis not a single word has been issued by neighbouring Eritrea. Yet the evidence is beginning to mount up that the country is facing a similar crisis.
This can be gleaned from a number of sources. The latest satellite imaging from the World Food Programme shows areas of the Eritrea’s highlands and western lowlands in deep orange. Here crops are somewhere between 50% and 70% below normal.
The UN humanitarian outlook report which has just been released underlines this.  While its main commentary provide no insight into the situation in Eritrea – which is left blank on several maps – it does begin to lift the lid on what is taking place.
The report accepts that drought may be ‘affecting both cereal production and pastures in different parts of the country. According to satellite-based monitoring, significant soil moisture deficits persist in most Red Sea coastal agro-pastoral areas and are expected to negatively affect most of these livelihood systems.’ The UN describes drought as a ‘medium risk’ but says it ‘could have a strong impact,’ without elaborating on either statement.
It is the Eritrean government’s reaction to these kind of reports that explains why this silent crisis has been allowed to develop. As the UN notes starkly, unlike other countries in the region: ‘There is no official national or UN El Nino contingency plan for multi hazard in Eritrea.’
The unwillingness of the Eritrean authorities to even begin discuss its predicament with any outside body lies behind the reticence of the international community to speak out.
Under President Isaias Afewerki the country has become one of the most isolated and secretive in the world. There are no independent sources of information, with the free press silenced since a government crackdown on the opposition in 2001.
International NGO’s, some of whom backed Eritreans during their 30 year fight for independence, have been excluded from the country. The authorities – claiming that Eritreans should be self-reliant – first restricted the work of NGO’s and then began taxing their activities. In May 2005, with a quarter of the population reliant on food aid, the government unveiled an NGO law which required them to pay taxes on all imports – including food and medicines.
Further restrictions were imposed on what kinds of development might be permitted. In February 2006 six Italian aid agencies were asked to leave the country and others were soon told to close down. Even UN agencies found their work curtailed, which is why few have more than skeleton operations inside Eritrea.
This explains why the response from the international community has been so hesitant. Contacts inside the country say that food is hard to come by and prices are high. Government subsidised essentials are difficult to obtain and when they are available are strictly rationed.
During a recent visit to Ethiopian refugee camps women described how they had left Eritrea after being denied government food vouchers. This was a routine reprisal – they said – after a relative fled the country to escape conscription. These stories are borne out by evidence collected by the UN Human Rights Council.
This information comes mainly from the urban areas of Eritrea. What is happening to the millions in the rural areas is a closed book. But even in a good year nutrition is poor and many go hungry. Only if the drought turns to famine and the bodies start piling up are we likely to hear cries for help. By that time it may well be too late.
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 United Nations Human Rights Council (2015), Report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, p. 98-98: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIEritrea/Pages/ReportCoIEritrea.aspx