FEWS Rwanda Food Security Update: Mar 2001
In most of March 2001, rains continued to be heavy and benefited crops greatly. At almost halfway into the current growing season (March-June 2001), crop conditions look good and the prospects for a good harvest in June also look good so far. However, whatever the season’s performance, some chronically insecure regions are likely to remain on the edge of food insecurity, with pockets of hunger necessitating some form of outside assistance.
The heavy rainfall has aggravated the problem of soil erosion, especially in the high altitude, densely populated areas of the Northwest. Erosion control measures should be considered a priority for both environment conservation and long-term food security in Rwanda.
As a result of stringent control measures put in place by the Government in the wake of the latest Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak in Rwanda, the epidemic now seems to be contained in localized areas. Unfortunately, these areas include the pastoralist province of Umutara where the quarantine cannot yet be lifted, as in some other provinces. The inability to sell milk or cattle, because of the quarantine, means that farmers in the Umutara Region face increasing difficulties in meeting their normal education, health, and veterinary drug expenses. Unexpectedly, the level of labor wages for those dependent on farm work opportunities (normally created by wealthier households) did not decrease, despite the FMD. Instead, wages increased by a third as a result of labor opportunities that came with the newly discovered columbium tantalite (coltan) mining sites in the province.
In late March and early April, a rapid reconnaissance visit was conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI), WFP, FAO, and FEWS NET in the areas of Kibungo, Kigali Rural (Bugesera Region), and Umutara Provinces that were hardest hit by last year’s rainfall shortage. The mission found that with the exception of Bugesera, the harvest of Season 2001 A (January 2001) had been relatively good, and that rains have been favorable to crop development so far. In the most affected area of Kigali Rural, farmers planted early and their sorghum and bean harvests (which should begin in mid-May) should be very good if rains continue for another month. If this happens, the region would recover further and faster. However, a percentage of households (to be estimated during the next joint crop assessment mission scheduled for the end of May) had been so severely affected by the drought that to cope with hunger, they had to sell their assets, such as goats and the iron sheets covering their houses. As a result, they have become not just poor, but truly destitute. In the absence of special recovery programs, recapitalization will not be possible and this population will remain highly vulnerable to future shocks. Also, the rates of child malnutrition in Bugesera have not decreased during the last six months.
If the short-run food security outlook improves significantly in the coming months, food security analysts and decision-makers should focus on designing programs geared to reducing food shortages in the long run. Those programs would surely include soil erosion control, agricultural intensification, and poverty alleviation. To complement these programs, Rwanda needs to put appropriate institutions in place for better food security monitoring and disaster management.
1. National Food Security Conditions and Prospects
Erratum: In last month’s report, Figure 1 said that the caloric requirement was 1,800 kcal per capita per day in Rwanda. In fact, the norm is 2,100 kcal, which suggests that without imports (estimated at 20 percent of total need), all provinces are food insecure. The crop assessment team used 1,800 kcal as the threshold for prompting humanitarian food assistance to intervene.
Since the last Report (March 15, 2001), there have been no signs of major change in the current food situation status in the country. However, the current rainfall pattern across the country bodes well for a good harvest by June-July 2001 and prospects for improved food security in the coming few months look good. In addition, the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) seems to have been contained and the prices of major food staples are falling.
1.1. Rainfall and Crop Development
According to 1996-2001 estimates, season B crop production (March to June) accounts for 47 percent of the annual food production and nearly half of all food consumed nationally. Season B is therefore very important for food security in Rwanda.
Rainfall is still the most important predictor of agricultural performance in the country. Since the rains started in October 2000, they have almost never ceased, and preliminary data show that in many MINAGRI/PASAR weather stations, the rainfall totals of Season 2001 A and the current 2001 B quantities exceed historic (1928-1990) levels. As a result, major food crops such as cooking bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava, and beans have developed well and the season 2001 B harvest should be good if rains continue through late May or early June. Recent field trips conducted by FAO, WFP, and FEWS NET in areas of eastern, central, and southern Rwanda that were most affected by last year’s rainfall shortage suggest that prospects for significantly improved food security after next June’s harvest are good. Figure 1, derived from satellite images of vegetation conditions (the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, or NDVI), also suggests that the entire country is now very "green," and in fact generally "greener" than normal for the first dekad of March. In the north, such as in Byumba Province, planting was delayed, due to late harvesting, but in that Province, rains usually last long enough to allow proper maturity even for late-planted crops.
The downside of the current heavy rains is that soil erosion was aggravated in many regions. Its negative impact to national food security may not be visible immediately, but the long-term impact could be catastrophic if strong control measures are not taken now. In March, rains caused landslides that damaged property and killed three people in Gisenyi Province.
1.2. Rainfall Evolution of the FMD Outbreak
According to the Department of Livestock, the outbreak of FMD is being contained within limited areas. However, in the main pastoralist Province of Umutara, the threat of infection spreading further is still high, and strict quarantine measures (including bans on sales of animals and milk) are still in force. Farmers, who have been deprived of their major source of income by the quarantine, report that presently they cannot cover their normal expenses related to school fees, health, and veterinary drugs. In other provinces, the strict control measures taken at the start of the outbreak have already been relaxed, with animals at least being allowed to move within a given district.
It is worth noting that for the first time in Rwanda, the Government took very stringent measures to contain the epidemic, including slaughtering the infected animals to eradicate localized sources of infection. This was done in Butare and in Kigali Rural Provinces, for example, where a total of 24 cows were killed. To compensate the owners, it was agreed that the government would replace the culled animals (often local cows) with more productive, crossbred cows.
As a result of the quarantine, meat has become a rare commodity, especially in rural markets. To improve its supply, the government has now allowed the slaughtering of animals in local markets. However, the movement of animals from one district to another is still banned. In addition, meat can now be transported to Kigali from non-affected provinces such as Gitarama, Gisenyi and Ruhengeri. This has stabilized meat prices across the country and in Kigali Town, though prices remain high. The price of milk has also stabilized, with imported powdered milk filling part of the gap created by the ban of milk from Umutara. The Department of Livestock still hopes that the quarantine measures will be phased out by June 2001 in the four provinces where they are still imposed: Umutara, Kibungo, Byumba, and Kibuye.
1.3. Recent Price Trends
Across the country, the prices of major food commodities were either stable or fell in March, as compared to February (Figure 2). This reflects a relatively good supply and optimistic expectations of improved supplies after the next season 2001 B harvest. The prices of sweet potatoes and of cooking bananas have started to decrease, at last. This is good news for consumers. Given the good crop conditions for sweet potatoes and banana, prices are likely to drop further in the coming months.
Labor wages increased in Umutara Province, despite the loss of cash revenues described above. In this province, the latest PASAR report indicates that wages increased by 33 percent in early April, even at a time when purchasing power and the capacity to create farm employment were depressed by the FMD outbreak. The cause of this wage increase seems to be the discovery in the province of mining sites for columbium tantalite (coltan). The demand for labor to mine this now highly priced mineral seems to have offset the FMD-induced decrease of labor demand. Coltan, often mined by hand, is also being actively extracted in all 11 rural provinces, with possibly the exception of Ruhengeri and Butare. The metal provides substantial income in rural areas and therefore affords them better access to food. The potential impact of artisanal coltan mining on the environment and on agriculture has not been studied yet.
2. Update on Food Insecurity in Bugesera Region
As indicated in the last report, Bugesera Region continues to face a high, though decreasing, food shortage. Because of the current rainfall, the crop conditions have changed dramatically in the area. If rains continue for another month, there will be a good harvest of sorghum, beans, and sweet potatoes. Traders are also instrumental in alleviating food insecurity, selling and buying foodstuffs such as sorghum, cassava, and sweet potatoes produced in the region or in neighboring regions.
In a WFP/FEWS NET visit made on April 6 to the most affected area of Bugesera, only the sight of some crumbling houses (whose iron sheets were sold to meet food needs) still evokes the terrible impact of repeated recent droughts. Currently, crops are in very good condition and all arable land is cultivated, with the exception of some fields that belonged to the 1994 genocide victims.
Farmers reported in interviews that they had worked as casual labor, sometimes in other regions, and had thus earned the cash they needed to buy food and seeds. The most vulnerable among them had also received free food from WFP and seed assistance from the Government and from various NGOs. As a result of the WFP emergency food distribution and since sweet potatoes have begun to be harvested, there is no immediate threat of food insecurity deteriorating further. Instead, there is much optimism in the air about the next harvest and the prospect of phasing out emergency food assistance to the region. Ideally, emergency food distributions should be replaced by food-for-work and other recovery activities. To promote future crop intensification, WFP should buy food items within the country as much as possible. Farmers and key informants believe that by mid-May or early June, emergency food assistance should be virtually terminated, provided that rains continue till then.
Unfortunately, food access remains a difficult problem, as demonstrated by the high number of malnourished children under age five in the population. Data from Rilima Nutritional Center (Gashora District), which is run by CARITAS to help address the Bugesera emergency, indicate that the number of malnourished children has not dropped during the last six months (Figure 3). The mortality rate among the children registered in the Center and its two outposts is also exceptionally high, especially in the last two months. This is reportedly due to an outbreak of malaria. Meanwhile, due to funding problems, CARITAS will probably not be able to continue assisting the nutritional center; WFP Rwanda should immediately step in to ensure continuity of this essential food assistance program.
Even if Bugesera had a bumper harvest at the end of this season, a portion of the population would remain quite vulnerable to other food security shocks. Assets, such as iron sheets and goats, which they sold to cope with the impact of the last four seasons’ drought, need to be replaced if households are to become more resilient to future shocks. Yet, without outside assistance, recapitalization will not be easy. In fact, repeated crop failures drove many households into a state of destitution, well beyond mere poverty, and this cannot be reversed with just one or two successive good harvests. The box below describes how destitution unfolds and prevents the affected population from escaping from its grip.
While it is not possible at this time to estimate the number of households that fall into the category of "destitute,"(a joint crop assessment mission scheduled to start by end of May should help establish this estimate), people in these households should receive special recovery assistance that needs to continue even after the June-July harvest. Last January, the population needing emergency food assistance was estimated at nearly 60,000 people, or about 68 percent of the total population of the two worst affected districts of Bugesera.
"It is important to start by distinguishing destitution and poverty. Recent research has defined destitution in relation to people's assets and livelihoods, focusing on people's productive capacity, as opposed to a more static understanding of poverty related to income levels or consumption. Destitution is also a process, not simply a status or outcome. Destitution ultimately renders people unable to meet their subsistence requirements even in relatively "good" years. The term first gained widespread use with research on the famines of the mid 1980s when it became clear that avoiding destitution was a much higher priority of vulnerable populations than was avoiding the experience of hunger. It quickly came to the attention of the humanitarian community in Ethiopia in 1999 when the failure of the belg rains (a relatively modest shock by historical standards) rapidly resulted in widespread and rapid decline in humanitarian conditions and an upsurge in stress migration."
Nick Maunder (FEWS NET) and Dan Maxell (CARE),
Greater Horn of Africa Food Security Update, February 20, 2001
In view of the current rainfall pattern, there is much optimism about the next June-July 2001 harvest. However, the season is not even halfway through, and there is always a risk of dry spells or premature halt to rains (such as happened last year) dampening optimistic crop harvest forecasts.
Hope is strong that the coming months will bring a respite from emergency concerns, allowing decision-makers to focus on relevant institutional strengthening and development. To this end, the Government needs to improve food security monitoring and response planning. The Government and donors should also get behind their expressed desire to set up a disaster management institution.
Despite the current improved outlook, Rwanda Food Security partners agree that this is not a time to relax. There are big hurdles to overcome to ensure a sustainable food security status for all Rwandans. Strong erosion control programs (including agro-forestry) and alleviation of the widespread rural poverty would help overcome these hurdles. These programs would greatly benefit from food-for-work (FFW) activities. Unfortunately, FFW programs are still on hold due to inadequate funding for WFP Rwanda.
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