ROME, 3 October 2002 -- A prolonged drought has seriously affected agricultural and livestock production in Eritrea this year - threatening the lives of more than a million people, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) said in a joint report issued this week.

The two Rome-based agencies say that rainfall has been poor since October 2001 with almost total failure of the March-June azmera rains and the late onset of June-September kremti rains , threatening the food security situation of thousands of farmers and pastoralists who make up most of Eritrea's working population.

The cereal harvest - forecast at 74 000 tonnes - is expected to be 60 percent below the average of the last ten years. It will cover only about 15 percent of Eritrea's food requirement instead of the average 40-50 percent. The agencies warned that international assistance will be needed to cover a shortfall of 283 000 tonnes, after taking into account anticipated foreign aid and commercial imports.

The FAO/WFP report is based on a two-week joint crop and food supply assessment mission conducted in late August, a month after the Eritrean Government declared a national drought emergency.

The report says that due to pervasive poverty, all of Eritrea is susceptible to food insecurity. However, the drought-prone regions of Northern Red Sea, Southern Red Sea and many parts of Anseba are particularly vulnerable.

The current poor agricultural season could not have come at a worse time. Eritrea is just recovering from a devastating border war with neighbouring Ethiopia. A large number of people, including farmers, are still displaced and thousands of soldiers are yet to be demobilised. Furthermore, the continuing resettlement of Eritrean refugees returning from Sudan is an extra strain on the country's resources.

The border conflict with Ethiopia has also rendered unusable an estimated 12 000 hectares in Debub and most of the sub-region of Lalai Gash in Gash Barka because of unexploded landmines. Conscription to military service has also depleted the agricultural workforce in many areas. This has led to an increasing number of households being headed by women.

Besides agriculture, most Eritreans earn a living through casual work. However, due to national conscription, there is an absence of younger men engaged in normal productive activities, such as ploughing and weeding, and this is exacerbating food insecurity at the household level.

Since the conflict with Ethiopia (1998-2000), war-affected populations displaced within Gash Barka and Debub Regions, as well as some of the Eritreans deported from Ethiopia, have had limited, or no means of accessing food, and are extremely vulnerable.

FAO and WFP are particularly concerned for the more than one million most vulnerable people (about a third of the country's 3.3 million inhabitants) who will require 140 000 tons of food in 2003. However, the report adds: "other populations may also need food assistance before the end of 2003, depending on cereal, water and pasture availability and cereal prices later in the year." The agencies say emergency food aid will be required at least until the harvest at the end of next year, in order to prevent loss of human life, destitution, liquidation of minimal productive assets and distress migration.

Pastoralists have also been seriously affected. The number of livestock, mainly goats, sheep and cattle, has diminished in some districts by up to 20 percent from their 2001 levels. There is a lack of pasture for grazing in most areas of the country.

The agencies add that emergency support to crop and livestock production is also urgently needed to revive production capacity for next year. This support should include the distribution of seeds for cereal production, the provision of supplementary feed and vaccines for cattle to cover for possible outbreaks of stress-induced diseases, with training for vaccinators.

The report says that while emergency food aid needs in Eritrea during 2003 will be extensive, it should be noted that in many areas, there is a risk of people developing an over-reliance on food aid with the expectation that this assistance will be provided on a regular basis.

The agencies say: "this is proving destructive to some traditional coping strategies, and creating a vicious cycle that can lead to dependency. Therefore, it is critical that emergency food aid be provided only to those who cannot survive or will become destitute without it". But the report also notes that domestic production in Eritrea, even in good years, is insufficient to meet demand, and the country relies heavily on food imports, including aid.

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FAO is the lead agency in the United Nations system for agriculture, forestry, fisheries and rural development. Since it was founded in 1945, FAO has worked to alleviate poverty and hunger by promoting agricultural development and the pursuit of food security.

WFP is the United Nations' front-line agency in the fight against global hunger. In 2001, WFP fed more than 77 million people in 82 countries including most of the world's refugees and internally displaced people.

WFP Global School Feeding Campaign -- As the largest provider of nutritious meals to poor school children, WFP has launched a global campaign aimed at ensuring the world's 300 million undernourished children are educated.