Millions threatened with starvation
A two-year drought, coming on top of widespread poverty, production disruptions and depleted food reserves, has plunged Southern Africa into its most serious food emergency in at least a decade. Nearly 16 million people in seven countries are at risk of starvation by the end of this year. Unless urgent measures are taken soon, cautions the World Health Organization, as many as 50,000 lives a month could be lost to malnutrition and disease. In early July, the UN launched an urgent appeal for $611 mn in emergency aid to stave off the regional crisis, on top of $236 mn requested earlier for Angola.
Food aid arrives in Malawi, but will the region get enough relief to prevent many more deaths?
Photo : ©WFP / Mike Higgins
For some, even immediate help will come too late. Madyawako Lepu's husband was among 70 residents of the Gwenge community in central Malawi who have died from hunger this year. "We had no food at all," Mrs. Lepu told the UN World Food Programme (WFP). "In desperation we started eating banana roots and other wild plants. But it was not enough to save my husband." Mrs. Lepu and her 12 dependents join 3.2 million Malawians hoping for emergency food aid in the coming months. But it may never arrive. As of early August, the UN reported that it had secured less than 22 per cent of the $144.3 mn needed for emergency relief in the country (see table).
Southern Africa drought
People at risk by Dec. 2002
% received by 11 Aug. 2002
* Includes $6.7 mn unallocated by country.
Source: UN Africa Recovery from data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, World Food Programme and US Agency for International Development.
She is among tens of millions of people in 21 sub-Saharan African countries facing severe food shortages this year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports. The causes, while varied, include poor rains, civil and cross-border conflicts and endemic poverty. The result has been sharply reduced food stocks in much of southern, central and eastern Africa and the Mano River region of West Africa. As a result, prices for staple items have soared beyond the means of the poor.
Half of Zimbabwe faces hunger
But it is in Southern Africa that the drought's grip is fiercest, and Zimbabwe has been among the countries hardest hit. Although Zimbabwe is a food-exporting country in good years, the upcoming maize harvest is expected to be just 23 per cent of the 1999-2000 season. Over 6 million people -- almost half the population -- are expected to require food aid by the end of the year. The government's widely criticized plan to redistribute commercial, white-owned farms to landless Africans has contributed to the shortfall, but the FAO found that the failure of the rains during the January-March growing season was the principal cause.
In Angola, ironically, it is the end of that country's decades-old conflict that has increased the need for assistance. Hundreds of thousands of previously isolated people have made their way to towns and demobilization centres in search of help. At the beginning of the year, the UN was feeding a million Angolans. That number is expected to rise to 1.5 million by the end of the year, putting enormous strain on existing relief programmes.
In one indication of the seriousness of the crisis, Secretary-General Kofi Annan named WFP Executive Director James Morris as his special envoy on the humanitarian crisis in Southern Africa in July. His principal task is to focus international attention on the worsening crisis. "With your support," Mr. Annan told donors, "we can save lives."
Great Lakes and Horn of Africa
Other parts of the continent will also require assistance. In the Great Lakes, good rains and strong harvests last year still left the troubled region's 1 million refugees and 3 million internally displaced people at risk of hunger. In the Horn of Africa, exceptionally dry weather in Ethiopia has doubled the number of people in need of emergency assistance from 2 million to 4 million, with an additional 2.5 million at risk. In neighbouring Eritrea, last year's strong harvest still left 1.3 million people, including many displaced during the war with Ethiopia, dependent on emergency food supplies. The persistence of drought in some areas has further reduced food security.
Donor commitments are not keeping pace with the growing need, however, and UN relief agencies are scrambling for resources. The WFP has already been forced to borrow $20 mn from the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to keep food aid flowing to Southern Africa. But time is critical, the World Health Organization noted. Without immediate access to food, medical care, clean water, and seeds for the upcoming planting season, African drought victims face a "tremendous loss of life."