HAMED NUR squats in the thick brown dust and stoically swings his small wooden-handled scythe at the brittle stalks of dried sorghum. "There is no grain, only fodder for the animals," he says.
The dead plants are casualties of a prolonged drought that has withered Eritrea. For this peasant farmer, the crop failure means there will be no food apart from emergency relief for his wife and 10 children for the second year in a row. Not only hunger, but also frustration with his failed efforts are sapping Hamed's spirit.
Eritrea has been burdened with chronic drought since the early 1980s, when famine swept the Horn of Africa killing more than a million people. In the past three decades, Eritrea has also been the locale for an intense war for independence from Ethiopia, which annexed the former Italian colony in 1962.
Relief workers say that although the war with Ethiopia ended last May with a pact to hold a referendum on Eritrea's future in 1993, most of the population is so impoverished that every downturn in the climate threatens renewed human disaster. Meanwhile, Eritrea's peculiar political status as a territory administered separately from Ethiopia, but not yet formally independent, appears to be blocking it from receiving more subsistence food.
An estimated 2.8 million people of the country's 3.2 million are in serious need and are receiving relief rations, say officials of the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA), a quasi-state agency.
Widespread starvation appears unlikely here this year because fighting has stopped, and because there is an extremely efficient relief operation under way, officials say. What is more worrisome, they say, is the impact of prolonged dependency on recipients' morale and motivation.
"There is still a great need for emergency assistance, but this will not solve the problem here," says Arild Jacobsen, director of Norwegian Church aid, a major supplier of relief aid to Eritrea. "What they need more than ever are funds for rehabilitation and development to get out of this evil circle of dependence."
During a five-week tour of Eritrea, the effects of the drought were visible everywhere. On the road south of the capital of Asmara were burned hillsides and empty fields with only a stubble of stunted barley and wheat poking through rocky soil.
North to Nacfa, where the rains failed almost entirely last year, the road is littered with dead cattle, goats, and camels. Even thorny belas, plants that provide a food of last resort for Eritreans, have become a casualty as desperate camels devour them after stripping the few remaining acacia trees of their sparse foliage. Sprawling refugee camp Despite the widespread crop failure, Eritrean farmers can be seen plowing fields in the hopes that next year will bring rain. With 50 percent or more of all livestock reported dead, many people use improvised shovels and hoes to cultivate soil.
In dusty towns, however, many businesses remain shuttered and thousands of people out of work. As the war intensified in the last two years, almost all industrial and commercial activity in Eritrea ground to a halt, say officials, relief workers, and civilians.
With much of the rural and urban population subsisting on aid, the country has begun to resemble a single, sprawling refugee camp. In each city, town, and rural district, ERA distributes wheat and vegetable oil occasionally supplemented by lentils and milk powder. Asmara has nine such centers. Since fighting ended, the World Food Program of the United Nations has become the main food supplier, bringing in 33,000 tons monthly through the war-damaged port of Massawa.
Officials from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will travel to Eritrea early next month for the first official discussions with the provisional government about direct assistance since the guerrillas took over. At issue is Eritrea's share of a potential $100 million grant to Ethiopia, the largest such grant to sub-Saharan Africa in a decade.
"The Eritreans are doing very well in the port with the limited facilities they have, but the roads are very bad, and we need more trucks," says Hans Nilsson, who oversees port operations.
Some reconstruction has begun, using relief food as payment for public works projects. Outside Keren, Eritrea's second largest city, hundreds of men and women repair the badly pitted asphalt road. In the town of Segeneiti, others build feeder roads and terrace eroded hillsides. In Adi Caieh, workers are paid with grain plant eucalyptus seedlings. Food used as money
ERA officials say they plan to shift much of the relief operations to food-for-work programs soon. Mobilizing such rehabilitation projects is essential not only to keep aid recipients economically active but also to break the cycle of despair that keeps people existing on relief, say aid workers and Eritrean agriculturalists.
"Trying to achieve food security here with dry-land farming is impossible," says Agriculture Commission head Tesfai Ghermazion, adding that changing the system of agriculture is essential. The commission plans to build 16 dams, 30 ponds, and 150 miles of feeder roads with food-for-work labor this year.
"Water management is the make-it-or-break-it issue for Eritrea's economic future," Dr. Ghermazion says.