PHOTO STORY: Drought and water shortages stalk Eritrea’s refugee camps

 Matilde Gattoni

4th August, 2011

In the second of our series of photo-stories documenting global water issues, Matilde Gattoni reports from Eritrea’s internally displaced persons camps – and outlines some startling facts about the planet’s most vital resource

As a result of 30 years of war for independence against Ethiopia (from 1961 to 1991) and another 3 years from 1997 to 2000, there are 50,000 Eritreans currently living in internally displaced (IDP) camps throughout the country.

These IDPs have fled three times in the last 10 years, each time because of renewed military conflict. They lived in relatives’ homes when lucky enough, but mostly, they fled to the mountains, where they attempted to do what Eritreans do best, survive. Currently there is no Ethiopian occupation in Eritrea, but landmines prevent the IDPs from finally going home.

It is estimated that every Eritrean family lost two or three members to the war which makes the reality of the current emergency situation even more painful for Eritreans worldwide. Currently, the male population has been decreased dramatically, affecting the most fundamental socio-economic systems in the country.

Among the refugee population, an overwhelming majority of families are female-headed, severely affecting agricultural production. For IDPs in particular, 80 per cent of households are female-headed. The unresolved border dispute with Ethiopia remains the most important drawback to Eritrea’s socio-economic development, as national resources (human and material) continue to be prioritised for national defense.

Eritrea is vulnerable to recurrent droughts and variable weather conditions with potentially negative effects on the 80 per cent of the population that depend on agriculture and pastoralism as main sources of livelihood. The situation has been exacerbated by the unresolved border dispute, resulting in economic stagnation, lack of food security and increased susceptibility of the population to various ailments including communicable diseases and malnutrition.

Did you know?

  • Water is just a relative concern in some of the richest countries of the world at the moment. The water shortage facing our planet today however is considered, by the United Nations, a major environmental crisis.


  • Man can survive a month with no food, but only a week with no water. The reasonable amount of water per human being is a minimum of 50 liters a day. In reality, and for billions of people, this is just a pure fantasy.


  • The World Health Organization, WHO, confirms that 40 per cent of the human race lives in impossible hygienic conditions especially due to lack of water. One out of two inhabitants of this earth lives in houses with no sewage system. More than one billion people drink non-drinkable water.


  • 3.4 billion people (5000 children per day) die each year of diseases transmitted through water.


  • World-wide statistics concerning the abundance of water show that the countries of the Middle East face the biggest risk. For some African countries, the problem is not the lack of water as much as that of lacking the financial means to distribute water to the population.


  • The consumption of water around the world in the past few years has multiplied by six. That’s twice faster than the population growth.


  • It is known that the planet is occupied by 1400 million cubic kilometers of water, that covers 71 per cent of the earth’s surface, but 97.5 per of it is salty water. The inhabitants of 29 countries around the world live beneath the recommended minimum necessary amount of water consumption per person. In Canada, a family may receive on average 350 litres of water, in Europe they may receive on average 165 litres, and in Africa a family will only have access to 20 litres of water.


  • The amount of water disposable around the earth is scarce in comparison to the population growth. Thirst is driving certain populations to a biblical exodus, such as the ones in the Turkish – Israeli – Iraqi triangle.


  • 1 per cent of the water on the planet is available for human use. 93 per cent of that 1 per cent is used in agriculture. The biggest factor in hydro-deprivation around the world – putting aside climate change and the effect of mass desertification – is the deteriorating quality of water. In the Mediterranean region, a 20 per cent reduction in weather change as well as a rise of 1.5 degrees centigrade in temperatures, has been recorded in the last century.


  • Water lives and manifests itself within these two extremes: droughts and floods. This creates a serious threat for humanity, the environment, the economy and agricultural products.


  • Another major factor in the reduction of water accessibility is the artificial projects which divert the natural flow of water and 69 per cent of world rivers. The ecosystem’s natural water flow is altered, therefore the flow of the water and its sediments is prevented resulting in devastating effects on the equilibrium of water bodies and the natural cycle of water.


  • Dams are still one of the main causes of environmental damage. In the west, dam construction is being slowed down, whereas in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, people are in the middle of gigantic projects.


Matilde Gattoni is a French/Italian photojournalist based in the Middle East. She has travelled to 9 countries (Eritrea, Niger, Indonesia, India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China, Jordan, Yemen) to gather testimony about water issues covering topics including desertification, war, natural and ecological disasters, and drought… Matilde started to work on this with the United Nations first and later with MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) and has decided to dedicate her career to this project.


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