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World Food Day 2016: Notes on Food Security in Eritrea

October 16 marks World Food Day (WFD), a day observed annually around the world. Established in 1979 through the Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) 20th General Conference, WFD celebrates the founding of FAO (in 1945), while also aiming to raise awareness of the underlying issues related to poverty and hunger, promote food security and sustainable agricultural practices, provide a common focus, and mobilize a call for action. WFD is particularly important since although every human being has a fundamental right to be free from hunger and the right to adequate food, hundreds of millions of people worldwide live with chronic hunger.

Moreover, the costs of hunger and malnutrition fall heavily on the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized, especially women and children: approximately 60% of the hungry in the world are women, while nearly 5 million children under the age of 5 die of malnutrition-related causes every year (FAO 2012; FAO 2014).

For Eritrea, food security and hunger have long been a considerable challenge. In the late 1800s, due to colonial policies, constant conflict, disease and resultant famines, the Eritrean population decreased by almost 80 percent. During the great famine of 1888-1892, many Eritreans as well as possibly one-third of the population of Ethiopia died, while the colonial government remained largely unresponsive. Over the following decades, the Italians continued to implement harmful and ineffective policies, and much of the most fertile land was expropriated from locals. Forced off their native productive lands, Eritreans migrated to cities or marginal farming areas, and national food production continued to significantly decline (Pateman 1990). Subsequently, throughout the latter-half of the 1900s, Eritrean society, particularly the agricultural sector and food security, were seriously affected by prolonged war, recurrent droughts, and large-scale environmental degradation.

More recently, since independence, Eritrea has utilized a multifaceted approach to guarantee the right to food, ensure food security, and combat hunger. A fundamental, yet often misunderstood, part of the country’s approach has been the principle of self-reliance, turning down aid when it does not fit the country’s needs or its capacity to use effectively. Eritrea does not reject external support – it actively welcomes it, but only when it complements the country’s own efforts. The Government has long encouraged aid that addresses specific needs which cannot be met internally, which is designed to minimize continued external support, and which complements and strengthens (instead of replacing) Eritrea’s own institutional capacity to implement projects. This approach is rooted in a strong desire to avoid crippling dependence and to foster a clear sense of responsibility for the country’s future among all citizens. It is hard to overlook the paradoxical situation that, globally, many of the externally-based strategies implemented to deal with the problems of hunger and food supply, frequently far from solving them, have often led to their aggravation. Particularly since WW-2, throughout the Global South, many countries that were once self-sufficient in food (even exporting food), quickly became net food importers and aid dependent. Likewise, hunger grew as many countries, in fulfilling strict conditions and guidelines associated with loans and aid, shifted to producing cash crops for export, at the expense of traditional staple crops.

In addition to widespread seed distribution, livestock vaccination and immunization campaigns, generous subsidies for foods and basic items, reforming of land policies, and important loan or credit programs (particularly for women), an important aspect of Eritrea’s food security and hunger elimination strategy has been addressing water scarcity. Located within the arid and semi-arid Sahelian region and characterized by harsh, challenging climatic conditions, Eritrea is not endowed with considerable water resources. It has two perennial river systems, the Setit River and the Gash Barka system, while all other rivers in the country are seasonal, carrying water only after rainfall. However, Eritrea’s rainfall patterns are extremely erratic. Average annual rainfall is only approximately 380mm, and rainfall is usually torrential – being high in intensity and short in duration – thus raising the possibility of unpredictable and destructive floods. Rainfall in Eritrea is also highly variable from year to year, with droughts occurring every three to five years, and most rivers remain dry for long periods. Furthermore, Eritrea possesses limited sources of fresh surface water, and while groundwater can be tapped, it may be small in quantity and poor in quality (IFAD n.d.).

Towards addressing water scarcity and ensuring food security, the Eritrean government has invested in a range of initiatives and projects. These include: creating small-scale irrigation schemes; installing solar powered water pumps throughout the country; and developing drip, pump, and sprinkler irrigation systems. Additionally, numerous ponds, reservoirs, dams, and water collection points have been built, collectively possessing a capacity of over 300 million cubic meters of water (GSE 2014: 33; Kidane 2016; Pose and Samuels 2011).

These cost-effective, practical, and pragmatic initiatives have had a substantive positive impact on food production and general development. Significantly, access to clean drinking water in rural and urban communities in Eritrea has risen to approximately 85%, dramatically higher than the meager figure at the onset of independence. Moreover, the projects have been particularly important since the majority of the country’s population resides within rural and semi-rural areas, relying predominantly on crop cultivation and animal husbandry for income. Encouragingly, land area under cultivation and production levels for major crops have shown steady increases. Overall, expanded access to water and improved irrigation schemes have meant that the country’s farmers can more efficiently and effectively cultivate agricultural land, ensure their livelihoods and earn a secure income, and ultimately support the country’s food security challenges.

As well, Eritrea’s food security strategy has involved close collaboration and cooperation with a range of international organizations, including the UN, the WHO, UNICEF, FAO, WFP, and (amongst many others). Bilateral partnerships have also been important; for example, over the past several years, Ireland and Eritrea have developed an increasingly strong partnership, particularly within the areas of agricultural development and general capacity building. Specifically, Irish-Eritrean projects have focused on improving potato farming and developing technology underpinning the dairy industry in Eritrea (e.g. research, extension, and capacity building of farmers and marketing). In a relatively short period of time, the programs have produced highly successful results, supported sustainable livelihoods, improved food security, and transformed the lives of thousands of farmers, families, and communities across Eritrea.

Notably, last year, in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Eritrea also began a multi-year, multi-million dollar project in the Anseba region that provides a minimum integrated agricultural package. The project, which includes the construction of water harvesting facilities; implementation of soil erosion measures; irrigation; adoption of climate smart agriculture; provision of livelihood support systems; and development of community-based early warning systems, has already improved agricultural production (thus supporting local and national food security aims), and led to positive, concrete outcomes for locals, especially women and children.

One of the clearest indications and strongest testaments of Eritrea’s progress in regard to food security and the right to food, beyond its various socio-economic and health-related improvements, is the country’s continuing ability to cope with the challenging climate-related conditions that have increased regional food insecurity and malnutrition and led countries throughout the region (and the continent) to appeal for humanitarian support. Earlier this year, the head of an international NGO working in Eritrean stated “at this time, East Africa is suffering massive hunger brought about by drought and El Nino. In the seven recent field visits our teams have made to five different regions of Eritrea and our work with communities and government, we have not observed acute levels of malnutrition.” Notably, other individuals and organizations based in the country have shared similar observations, and recently, a representative of a large international organization in Eritrea noted the encouraging harvests throughout the country.

Ultimately, Eritrea has made considerable progress in terms of food security and combating hunger. Guaranteeing the right to food has required not only genuine political will and firm commitments, but also strong support from and collaboration between local communities, international partners, development organizations, and civil society. Moving forward, in order to sustain and further strengthen past progress, Eritrea should look to expand its fishing sector. Eritrea’s coastline, running along the western Red Sea, including hundreds of islands near the major ports of Massawa in central Eritrea and Assab in the south, is approximately 1200 kilometers, making it one of the longest in the world (Asmerom 2016). Notably, estimates suggest that the country’s coastline has a potential yield of 80,000 metric tons of fish per year, a figure which would help to further ensure food security and guarantee a fundamental human right.

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