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In the hunger zones


In Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, families subsisting on onions and cabbage get a helping hand from their Red Cross.


The endless fields that looked so promising in spring now stand grey and dry. Another year of drought has brought more hunger and hardship to Moldova, a country of 4.3 million people in eastern Europe.

“Two years ago it all looked different,” says Maria Dragach, 35, and a mother of seven whose family has been assisted by the Red Cross Society of the Republic of Moldova. “Our garden was full of vegetables and my husband had a job in Chisinau, but now with this desert land we have to save every penny to buy the cheapest food and to make ends meet.”

Maria tried to grow vegetables, but the merciless July sun left her with dried pea-sized green tomatoes and a few cucumbers.

Today her supplies consist of two cabbages, potatoes and carrots. These are the ingredients for the schi (cabbage soup) she cooks daily to give her husband George and boys a decent breakfast before they go to work in the fields. They take homemade bread too. For supper they will have baked cabbage that she cooks while they are in the fields. It’s the same every day.

Lean seasons

Buckwheat with onions is a richer meal, but they cannot afford it as often. Sometimes they have spaghetti with fried onions “to add some colour”, as Dragach puts it. Vegetable oil is expensive and she tries to save it when she can. Last year the family sold their cow for lack of fodder. They have one rabbit that will probably be the last meat the family will have this year.

“When I was pregnant with my last son,” she says, holding her seven-month-old baby, “I desperately wanted to eat fish. There are no rivers or lakes in our area and we did not have money to buy it in the city. Then my brother’s wife sold her gold necklace to buy some fish for me. I still feel so grateful to her for that.”

In 2007, Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, was struck by the worst drought in its recent history. The drought affected 80 per cent of the country and badly affected farming, which constitutes one-fifth of Moldova’s gross domestic product. Families were forced to sell or slaughter their livestock — they could no longer afford the fodder.

This year, another drought brought more hardship. Gardens dried up. The price of staples such as rice, meat and vegetable oil soared 150 per cent in the first five months of 2008. And there is less work. To add to the worries, floods swept northern Moldova in July. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says Moldova is the only European country that needs urgent food aid. The World Bank warns that the level of poverty in Moldova could reach 41 per cent in 2008.

“It seems everything comes at once: no fodder, no cow, no milk, no meat, no job,” says Dragach. “Our eldest son will not go back to school in September for his last year of studies. He will help his father to earn for the family, otherwise we will not survive.”

The Dragach family was among the 10,000 people who received a 30-kg food parcel with rice, buckwheat, vegetable oil, two cans of meat, sugar, flour and oil from the Moldova Red Cross. The distributions were aimed at the most vulnerable people, generally multi-child and single-headed families and those with disabled members in isolated villages. They were most at risk of malnutrition.

Building resilience

Dragach says the parcel was a boost to the family’s diet but only lasted two weeks. “I tried to economize but it was difficult to keep that stuff away from the children.”

Red Cross executive director Vasile Cernenchi worries about the coming winter. “When I see all the empty glass jars in the cellars that traditionally would have been filled with winter preserves by this time of year, I can foresee the coming problems,” he says. “Next winter, we expect to see an acute shortage of food for the most vulnerable people, who will have neither winter supplies nor money to buy food, the price of which is ever increasing.”

The solution lies in longer-term food security programmes, says Edmon Azaryan, head of the International Federation’s monitoring mission in Moldova.

“Food, fodder, clothes for children, seeds, money to pay for rents and communal services, agricultural machinery and fertilizers were identified among the most acute needs of the country’s rural population,” he says.

In Moldova, as in the other countries affected by hunger, what is desperately needed are programmes to build community resilience. The Red Cross Red Crescent is putting in place such programmes, which include providing seeds, tools and fertilizer, in many African countries (see box).

“Moldova’s poorest and most marginalized were already finding life extremely tough even before the drought. This has pushed them to the brink of extreme poverty,” says Joe Lowry, International Federation representative for Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine.

“As many people of working age — mothers and fathers — have left the country, the onus is on grandparents to care for children, or for children to fend for themselves. This is a very disturbing situation in the year 2008, right on the border with the European Union. But simple charity is not enough. The Moldova Red Cross needs support to help lift people out of poverty. We are looking at novel, sustainable solutions like livestock rearing, poultry farming, beekeeping and microcredits to help make this happen.”

Making sense of life

Nina and Nadezhda Bobuh are known by their neighbours as “the little bees”. The 72-year-old twins, who live in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, survived last year’s grim winter thanks to a Red Cross canteen.

“We only eat the soup there,” explains Nina Bobuh. “We pack the main course which we then warm up for the dinner and save the buns for breakfast.”

Nina, a former book seller, and Nadezhda, a former nurse, guide the Moldova Red Cross volunteer down to their cellar. Shelves are full of empty glass jars that in recent, happier, times were filled with preserves for the winter.

They economize in any way they can. Near their garden stove is a sheaf of brushwood that the elderly sisters collect from the forest every week. They collect water from the roof.

Yet every month they buy a sack of wheat for US$ 35 to bake bread and biscuits they share with their older neighbours.

“When we share this homemade bread, we feel some sense in life,” says Nina Bobuh.


After a lean harvest nearly emptied her cellar, Nina Bobuh survived thanks to Red Cross food aid.















“When we share this bread, we feel some sense in life.”

Rita Plotnikova and Tatiana Plosnita
Rita Plotnikova is International Federation communications manager in Budapest, Hungary; Tatiana Plosnita is International Federation programme coordinator for Moldova.




Source: FAO, 2006

Action on world hunger

The Red Cross Red Crescent has been responding to a dramatic rise in the price of food. Rising food, fuel and fertilizer prices left an extra 75 million people hungry, bringing the estimated number of undernourished people to 923 million in 2007, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Meanwhile, the ICRC has stepped up its response to needs caused or aggravated by rising food prices, especially in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Yemen.

In April 2008, the International Federation launched a five-year community-based Food Security Initiative to benefit 2.2 million people in 15 African countries with projects such as sustainable farming, microfinance, small-scale irrigation schemes and alert systems. One of the countries in the initiative, Ethiopia, has struggled with food prices that rose 330 per cent because of a food shortage after floods and drought in 2007 and 2008, and failed rains. In areas that are the worst hit, the Ethiopian Red Cross Society is assisting 76,000 people with emergency food, better access to water, hygiene promotion and agricultural aid.


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