JOHANNESBURG, 20 January (IRIN) - The year 2002 in Southern Africa was marked by a scramble for food - by the over 14 million people who faced starvation, and by humanitarian agencies begging international donors for the urgent funds needed to buy food to prevent a catastrophe.
As nutritionists watched malnutrition rates spiral, and clinic workers tended to emaciated mothers and their children, the presidents of Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Lesotho declared a disaster and appealed to the international community for help. Developments in Swaziland and Mozambique were also worrying.
Unlike the drought of 1992 that saw swathes of Southern Africa reduced to bare trees and parched clay, the current erratic weather patterns were accompanied by the challenges of economic crises, tenuous national grain reserves and a growing realisation of the devastating effect HIV/AIDS was having on families and communities.
Initial estimates said that about 12 million people would need help until the harvest this April and May, but subsequent assessments revised this to over 14 million. By the end of the year, as figures started trickling in from the latest vulnerability assessments, it was clear that even more people would need help. In Zimbabwe the figure has leapt from about six million people - half the population - to at least 7.2 million.
Humanitarian workers distributing lifesaving rations of maize, corn soya blend, pulses and cooking oil reported that families throughout the region had exhausted their coping mechanisms. They had sold everything of value to buy food. Competition with other equally desperate families meant they often received far less than the item's true worth.
Women walked for miles to sell water to truck drivers, they scoured the land for firewood to barter for food, took their children out of school to help and in their most desperate hour, some turned to prostitution. Men tried to find casual labour, they traveled to cities in the hopes of finding a job or risked their lives by searching for traces of gold in closed and dangerous mines.
In Malawi, many smallholder farmers, who already sat in front of empty fields because they did not have money to buy fertiliser to coax a meagre crop from their soil, lost their chance of casual labour on other farms when they were weakened by one of the worst cholera epidemics in years. In Lesotho, villagers dependent on food aid were cut off from supplies when thick snow fell in the highest mountain regions.
In July the World Food Programme (WFP) launched a massive appeal for the US $507 million they would need to tide families over until the next harvest and hoped to meet 67 percent of the region's emergency needs.
"It has been a very challenging year," said Deborah Saidy, WFP Deputy Emergency Coordinator for Southern Africa.
Saidy explained that the organisation had opened a new office in Swaziland, had scaled up operations in other countries in response to the extra needs, and had identified implementing partners.
"It has been a difficult year for sure. We have seen people resort to disastrous coping measures and there is no doubt that because this current food crisis comes on top of HIV/AIDS, it is extremely difficult for the populations affected," Saidy said.
"For many people this is the second or third consecutive year of erratic weather conditions or economic hardship. Southern Africa is no stranger to natural disaster like localised flooding, hail or drought, but this time a very broad area was affected by drought and many countries did not have strategic reserves.
"If we compare this disaster with [the regional drought of] 1992, HIV/AIDS has taken hold much more firmly and we see a far higher number of dependents and more child-headed households," Saidy said.
Tracking charts show that general food distribution in the six countries from July varied, reflecting difficulties NGOs faced. In Malawi distribution was generally high, but in Zimbabwe this plummeted to just 17 percent of beneficiaries in August. The figure for Zambia was 28 percent in October while in Mozambique, 56 percent of beneficiaries were reached in December.
Saidy explained that the varying figures were due to a number of constrains faced by humanitarian workers. An unexpected and significant setback was the rejection of genetically modified (GM) food by some countries. Most have now agreed to accept milled GM food, while Zambia will announce its revised position later this month in parliament. However, as the saga unfolded, agencies were left desperately trying to find alternative food to give to beneficiaries.
Conversely, deliveries to countries like Swaziland went very smoothly without any constraints, she said.
However, in spite of the difficulties, the latest situation report from Zambia does chalk up many achievements. Seeds and inputs were distributed, food for work rations were provided for preparation work for conservation farming techniques, insecticide treated nets were distributed, therapeutic feeding programmes were strengthened and sexual exploitation training was conducted for staff directly connected to food distribution.
"The donor response to the South African operation was very generous but now we're at the peak of the crisis and we expect a shortfall of 300,000 mt urgently. Zimbabwe is of the most concern because half the population requires food aid," Saidy said.
In December Zimbabwe's inflation rate reached 198 percent, reflecting the severity of circumstances the average Zimbabwean faces.
Andrew Timpson, Senior Humanitarian Affairs Officer in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the humanitarian programme in Zimbabwe was "in a state of catch up" during 2002 as assessments gave a stronger idea of new areas of vulnerabilities, tonnages [of food aid] and dealt with problems registering NGO partners allowed to deliver food aid.
Timpson said that although the food appeal was 67 percent funded which was considered good, education, water, sanitation and health programmes were not well recoursed.
Under the land reform programme, which reached its peak in 2002, there was concern over underutilisation of newly settled land and the possibility of lower crop yields. In addition there was uncertainty about farmers' tenure and it appeared that the government owned the land, making it difficult for farmers to access credit at the banks, Timpson said.
However, while the resettled farmers battle to eke out a living, the plight of farmworkers was becoming increasingly worrying. A maximum of 10 percent received farms, while many others were evicted and made homeless. Those who received retrenchment packages from the former farm owners have tried to make the funds last, while others are particularly vulnerable and relying on NGOs like the Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe for food.
Timpson said another group of vulnerable people in Zimbabwe was people living in urban areas.
For Angola the year was a mixture of triumph and frustration. While the ceasefire opened the country to many new business opportunities, it also allowed humanitarian workers to access new areas and the full impact of the war on the lives of millions of people was finally realised. Millions of people needed food aid, medical facilities and schools. And while organisations like WFP and Medecines Sans Frontieres pushed to reach more and more people, they were hampered by landmines, poor roads and rutted runways.
But as countries take stock of what needs to be done for the year ahead, there is one aspect that they have no control over - the weather. Erratic weather continues to threaten all recovery efforts and as Malawi and Mozambique emerge from a flood and a cyclone, many parts of the region are now bracing themselves for yet another year of drought, and the parched conditions that meteorologists warn another El Nino will bring.
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