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Recovery slowed by drought and military tensions - USAID official

[Eritrea] Jatinder Cheema, USAID's outgoing mission director in Eritrea.
Jatinder Cheema (IRIN)

Since the border war with Ethiopia ended in 2000, drought and tensions with its larger neighbour have continued to take a heavy toll on Eritrea's economy and the welfare of its people, a USAID (US Agency for International Development) official told IRIN in an interview.

"There was so much devastation [during the war]," Jatinder Cheema, USAID's outgoing mission director in Eritrea, said on Saturday. "There was so much rehabilitation to be done, and capacity to be built."

The two-year war killed an estimated 70,000 people from both countries, displaced a third of Eritrea's population and caused large-scale destruction in Eritrea, where much of the fighting took place.

In December 2000, the two Horn of Africa countries agreed to accept as "final and binding" the decision of an independent boundary commission on where the border should lie.

However, Ethiopia subsequently rejected the commission's ruling in April 2002. Military tensions between the two states have simmered ever since.

Some of Eritrea's most fertile land lies along the border in the southwest of the country, but thousands of Eritreans were unable to return to their homes there, due to the destruction of the area and the lingering threat of landmines.

Eritrea's borders with Ethiopia and Sudan are officially closed, which disrupts trade and economic development. However, Cheema said signs of recovery were visible, helped by support from the government and the international community.

"[In] one of the border towns the market was completely destroyed, the houses were destroyed. I went back two years later - it is a flourishing market with vegetables," she said.

Drought has remained one of the main obstacles for Eritrea's recovery - along with the closed border, difficult macro-economic environment, and continued military tensions.

Pasturelands are at their driest levels since 1998, according to official sources.

"You go to Keren, and there are families who use one bucket of water a week practically per family," said Cheema. "The water is not there, and if it is there, it is very far away. People have to walk distances to get it.

"There is thinking on how to capture some rain water and other available water to maximise its availability, but it is a problem," she said, giving the example of a small village outside the port city of Massawa, which Mercy Corps, a USAID-funded NGO, provided with water drums and a donkey cart. One person was then able to collect water for the whole village, for a small fee.

"The three hours they spent going somewhere to get water was saved, and they were using that time for family matters," she said.

While traditional coping mechanisms were limited, Cheema said she was impressed by the strength of spirit of Eritreans.

"Food rations that are maybe meant for two people, who have been assessed as vulnerable in that family, get shared," she said. "And I really think that sharing has prevented more [of a] crisis situation than it otherwise would have been," she added.

However, a totally secure food situation was not possible, she added: "Even in the best years, the best of production, you cannot produce enough food for everybody. It is unrealistic, given the landscape of this country and the resources."

Improved food security would require both increased production and a better economic climate so that people could buy more food for themselves, according to Cheema.

"Whatever it takes to get money in the hands of the people. Something [so] that people can then have the resources to buy food they cannot grow," she said.

Thanks to the work of USAID's partners, Cheema added, malaria rates had declined by 85 percent since 1999, and mortality rates among women, children and infants had dropped by about 30 percent between 1995 and 2002.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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