Parts of Angola, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia, have been struck by devastating floods which have destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of crops during the most critical growing stage.
In stark contrast, Lesotho, Namibia, southern Mozambique, and much of Swaziland and large swathes of Zimbabwe's cropland, have all been affected by prolonged dry spells which have withered and killed crops or reduced their development. Lesotho, for example, is expecting up to a 60 percent decline in agricultural output over last year's harvest.
In addition, South Africa, which is usually the largest producer of maize in the region and one of WFP's procurement points, is facing poor harvest prospects due to recent weeks of extreme heat and drought in some parts of the country. Reduced harvests in South Africa could be especially problematic when responding to food shortages in the region, particularly as prices for maize have already started escalating
"All indications are that southern Africa could be heading for yet another year of critical food shortages," said Amir Abdulla, WFP Regional Director for Southern Africa. "For some parts of the region, it's simply too late to hope that a late burst of rainfall will change people's food supply outlook for the year ahead."
One of the countries worst affected by dry spells is Swaziland, which is potentially facing a sixth consecutive year of poor harvests -- perhaps the worst in 25 years. In the last few months, Swaziland has suffered delayed rainfall, heavy winds and hailstorms, and then scorching dry spells. This year, the impact of the dry spells is expected to be felt countrywide and not just in the traditionally dry Middleveld, Lowveld and Lubombo Plateau.
"Early indications are that this could be the worst agricultural year in Swaziland due to drought since 1992," Abdulla said. "We are now pulling together an assessment team to determine the extent of crop failure and the likely impact on the country's food supply, but initial findings are grim."
Since 2002, WFP has been supporting about a quarter of Swaziland's 1.1 million people with food assistance to improve the nutrition of families affected by drought, poverty, and HIV/AIDS. However, even in a normal year of harvests, nearly half the population is classified as suffering from food insecurity.
Parts of Zimbabwe are of particular concern as early indications are that cereal crops in much of the southern half of the country have been decimated by a long dry spell in January and early February.
In other parts of southern Africa, despite the erratic weather, Malawi is expected to yield a bumper harvest again this year, while Zambia and northern Mozambique are also likely to produce good harvests that will represent buying opportunities for WFP as in previous years. Crops are usually harvested during April and May.
Since 2004, harvests in southern Africa have generally improved due to better weather patterns and the broader availability of seeds and fertilisers. As a result, the number of people requiring food aid has steadily declined. However, due to chronic poverty and nine of the ten highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, food security in southern Africa remains precarious, requiring WFP to currently assist 4.3 million people.
"We are watching the region very closely to see what assistance may be needed to help the poorest and most vulnerable people through the months ahead," Abdulla said. "Assessments need to be carried out as soon as possible to determine the impact agricultural losses may have on these groups, but already the early indications for several countries are alarming."
Even without the additional challenges that would be posed by widespread erratic harvests in southern Africa, WFP faces a funding shortfall of about US$97 million for current operations through to the end of 2007.
Donors to date: United States of America, US$159.4 million; EC - EuropeAid and ECHO, $86 million; United Kingdom, US$37.3 million; Japan, US$23 million; Malawi, US$22 million; Netherlands, US$19.4 million; Canada, US$17 million; Ireland US$9.8 million; Australia, US$8.7 million; and Algeria, US$8 million.
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