"All indications are that southern Africa could be heading for yet another year of critical food shortages," said Amir Abdulla, Regional Director for Southern Africa of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), in a statement released today.
Torrential rains have drowned ripening harvests in Angola, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia under flooded fields, while crops in Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, southern Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Swaziland have wasted away in unusually long, hot, rainless periods.
According to the WFP statement, flooding has "destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of crops during the most critical growing stage [and the] dry spells 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 Swaziland, one of the countries worst affected by the dry spells and facing a sixth consecutive year of poor harvests, "recent storms depressed crop yields and current expectations are that maize crops will be 20 percent below last years poor harvest", according to the latest Humanitarian update by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
"Reports received from our representative stakeholders in the affected areas reflect that the disaster task force should brace itself for another bad year. Weather conditions that would enable farmers to salvage whatever they can from the devastated crop have not improved," Ben Nsibandze, Chairman of the Swaziland National Disaster Task Force, told IRIN.
Abdoulaye Balde, WFP's Representative in Swaziland, commented, "The impact of the drought on the nation's food supply will be determined by a comprehensive look at the extent of crop failure, but indications are that the situation is the worst it has been in 15 years." WFP has been supporting about a quarter of Swaziland's 1.1 million people with food assistance since 2002.
Parts of Zimbabwe are of particular concern, but "the production outlook is mixed, with the northern half facing moderately improved prospects, while the drier southern half faces a less favourable outlook in view of the below-normal rains received since the start of the season," OCHA's update commented.
Reduced harvests as a result of weeks of extreme heat and drought in some parts of South Africa could adversely affect the response to regional food shortages: the country is usually the largest producer of maize in southern Africa and one of WFP's procurement points for food aid.
Other parts of the region might provide alternatives. "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," the WFP statement said.
Exacerbating the situation, Cyclone Favio moved across the region at the end of February, destroying crops and displacing 133,670 people in Mozambique after holding back relief efforts as it scratched the southern tip of Madagascar. Seven cyclones have hit the Indian Ocean island since the 'cyclone season' began.
According to Madagascar government estimates, this year's rainy season flooded large areas that were populated and cultivated, displacing almost 33,000 people and destroying 90,000ha of agricultural land. The government has appealed to the international community for US$242 million but has so far only received $1 million.
"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."
After six years of chronic food insecurity in the region, the WFP is facing a critical funding crisis. Even without the additional challenges of another year of poor harvests, WFP faces a funding shortfall of about $97 million for current operations until the end of 2007 in southern Africa.
Michael Huggins, WFP's regional spokesman, told IRIN: "The funding situation is extremely critical - donors have to realise that millions [in the region] affected by HIV/AIDS can't grow their own food."