Lesotho + 5 more

Hunger in southern Africa: The unfolding crisis

News and Press Release
Originally published
Drought, floods, economic instability and HIV/AIDS is threatening the food security of millions of people spread across six countries in southern Africa. WFP is calling for a massive response to the unfolding crisis.
May 4, 2002 - With southern Africa facing its worst food shortages in a decade, WFP is gearing up for a massive humanitarian operation to feed millions of people across the region.

The Agency is already feeding about 2.6 million people in Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, but a regional cocktail of drought, floods, depleted foods stocks and economic instability suggest millions more are falling deeper into hunger.

WFP's regional director for east and southern Africa, Judith Lewis, has warned that food has to start arriving in three-four months to avert an "all-out disaster."

"Much needs to be done, and we need to do it now," said Lewis, who spent 15 days cris-crossing the region last month.

"We need to be preparing for what's going to be needed in the future."

WFP experts are already assessing logistics in the region ahead of the expected massive food supply operation.

In order to quantify the dimensions of the unfolding crisis, the Agency is currently running assessment missions across the region (see box below) together with other United Nations' Agencies, Governments, Donors and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

An appeal is expected to go out to donors in June.

Food security has not touched such low levels since a severe drought in 1991/92. Then WFP, governments and commercial operators brought 12.9 million tonnes of food aid into the region to avert a potential famine.


"The situation is extremely critical," says Lewis, who spent 15 days touring the region last month.

The principal threats to food security are many, and vary in severity from country to country:

  • Severe dry spells / drought: Malawi, Mozambique 2001/2002, Zambia, Zimbabwe.
  • Heavy rain / floods: Lesotho, south & central Mozambique 2000/2001.
  • Disruption to commercial farming: Zimbabwe.
  • Depletion of strategic grain reserves: Malawi 2001, Zambia.
  • Poor economic performance: Lesotho, Zimbabwe.
  • Delays in importation of maize, particularly from South Africa: region-wide
  • Sharp rises in price of staple foods: Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe
In many places, this is the second or third consecutive year of food shortages and many people's so-called 'coping mechanisms', such as selling livestock to pay for food are exhausted. Today, they are fighting for survival.

Predictions for the approaching harvests (April-June) are pessimistic; at best, their yields will only provide short-term relief for some of the 2.6 million victims.

As if this was not enough, meteorologists are also warning that the El Nino climatic phenomenon could strike a blow to next year's harvest.

The current crisis is also unfolding against the backdrop of one of the world's highest HIV/AIDS rates. Prolonged food shortages in southern Africa could see an already weakened population succumb to a variety of illnesses and disease.

"The crisis is upon us and the window of generate response shrinks by the day," says Lewis, "unless we mobilise urgent, massive food resources, people will soon start to die."

WFP Assessment Missions: 2002 Schedule

- Zimbabwe: 23 April-11 May

- Malawi: 22 April-10 May

- Zambia:6-24 May

- Mozambique: 22 April-10 May

- Lesotho: 25 April-4 May

- Swaziland: 15-24 April


Unfolding Crisis:

Lesotho is facing it's second year of food shortages and, on April 22, the prime minister declared a state of famine.

2002 is expected to be a second year of poor production of both maize and sorghum because of heavy rains, hailstorms and frost. Maize is available on the market but prices are extremely high for this time of year.

Lesotho is encircled by South Africa. Consequently, this tiny, mountainous country depends on its neighbour for more than half its food needs. But South Africa's badly needed food surpluses have failed to materialise.

Lesotho's food security was already in decline for two reasons:

First, production of Lesotho's major crops continues to decline, a trend which started in the 1970s; second, household income once supplemented by remittances from Basotho employed in South African mines is falling because of the retrenchment of mine workers.

Poverty and malnutrition are particularly pronounced in Lesotho's mountainous areas. 16.3 percent of children under the age of five are estimated to be underweight in Lesotho.

According to the World Bank, HIV prevalence rate in Lesotho is approximately 26.5 percent (35.3 percent among adults).

WFP Response: WFP is already helping some 36,000 people in the worst-affected parts of Lesotho through food aid drawn from its existing development projects.

The operation targets five districts which were badly hit by crop failure in 2001. By March 31, 432 metric tonnes had been distributed to 24,000 of the most vulnerable people. However, international emergency assistance may be required.


Unfolding Crisis:

With more than 70 percent of the population facing food shortages, the president of Malawi made his country's food crisis a State of Disaster on February 27.

Malawi's current food shortages stem from the worst floods on record in 2001, last season's low maize production, the depletion of the strategic grain reserve and high maize prices on all local markets.

The situation has been worsened by a dry spell, a lack of seeds & fertilisers and, most significantly, families consuming vast amounts of their harvest when it is still green. Many now risk running out of their own food soon.

Malawi's lean season usually falls in October. This year, it is expected to start in June.

Hungry thieves are stealing entire maize fields; people are afraid to leave fields unattended while at funerals or weddings.

Men have been risking their lives by diving for water lily bulbs in crocodile-infested rivers, while women have been gathering up wild grasses to pound the barely visible kernels into flour.

Malnutrition rates are soaring in health and nutritional centres. The National Rehabilitation Centre at Blantyre has received twice the average intake of malnourished patients in recent months.

With children kept at home to help their families search for food, school attendance has dropped.

WFP Response: WFP is currently assisting some 301,000 people through an emergency operation, in addition to disaster mitigation activities under its Malawi Country Programme.


Unfolding Crisis:

After having their crops and livestock devastated by severe flooding in 2000 and 2001, the people of south and central Mozambique are now grappling with the consequences of another natural calamity: the near total absence of rain since January.

Almost total crop failure is reported in many parts of the south, with partial loss in the centre.

Production of Mozambique's staple food maize has suffered. Up to 400,000 people are already without food stocks, and the situation is set to deteriorate further.

For rural families, who rely on subsistence agriculture for survival, three years of natural disaster has exhausted their main coping mechanism - the sale of livestock.

Most herds have not recovered from the 2000 floods.

Food prices are rising and people who cannot afford the staple food are getting increasingly hungry.

WFP Response: WFP is currently providing food aid to some 191,000 people under its flood 2000 recovery operation; this was recently extended to allow the Agency to keep helping a population that once again finds itself at the mercy of a natural disaster.

While awaiting the results of the assessment mission currently in progress , WFP Mozambique is drawing up a three-month 'bridging operation' to provide food aid for 400,000 people in need.


Unfolding Crisis:

Swaziland is usually self-sufficient but the government recently declared an urgent need for food aid following erratic rainfall.

Initial projections indicate a second year of below average maize production.

Swaziland relies heavily on South Africa for food supplies and the latter country's decreased production levels are weighing heavily.

WFP Response: Although WFP has not been present in Swaziland since 1996, the Agency is still monitoring the food security situation carefully. The precise amount of food aid required will be determined in the upcoming joint assessment mission.


Unfolding Crisis:

In southern Zambia, severe drought has caused total crop failure, even devastating the usually drought-resistant sorghum; despairing farmers have set their livestock loose to eat up the dried up stalks.

The drought has also affected the eastern part of Zambia.

Many Zambians are experiencing their second year of crop failure and have little or no food stocks to fall back on. Families are having to use their savings to buy food.

Some are selling their livestock at throw-away prices before water sources dry up. Others are surviving off the fruit of baobab trees or eating so-called famine foods such as wild cucumbers and a boiled root mix.

The situation has been further aggravated by developments in Zimbabwe which have increased the regional demand for maize; this has pushed the price of Zambia's staple food beyond the reach of large numbers of people.

The April harvest seems unlikely to alleviate food shortages for many months, with the lean season expected to start earlier than usual.

WFP Response: WFP assistance to drought-affected populations has been extended until July 2002; the operation, which provides for 1.3 million people, has also been adjusted to target the districts (mainly in the south), which have been worst-hit by this year's drought.


Unfolding Crisis:

The onset of drought in December 2001 has aggravated the already tenuous food security of poor Zimbabweans.

Prior to the drought, a strong downturn in the national economy had provoked significant increases in the prices of staple foods and drained maize stocks. Food production had also been falling sharply because of Government land acquisition activities.

Zimbabwe's hungry also face high inflation, low employment, and unprecedented HIV/AIDS infection levels.

The number of highly vulnerable Zimbabweans requiring food aid has risen dramatically in recent months, and the crisis shows no sign of easing.

The 2001-02 harvest is expected to be poor due to erratic rainfall and a major reduction in the area planted in the commercial farming sector.

In the capital Harare and Bulawayo, people are queuing endlessly to buy maize meal at Grain Marketing Board outlets.

Sugar, vegetable oil and other staple commodities are also increasingly in short supply. A nationwide fuel shortage is also looming.

WFP Response: Zimbabwe's government appealed to the UN for humanitarian assistance in October 2001.

WFP subsequently re-established a Country Office and launched an emergency operation to target 558,000 people in 19 districts. Food aid distributions started in February.

To date, relief efforts have been concentrated in rural areas where food shortages were judged to be the most serious.

However, an Urban Brainstorming Workshop took place in Harare on April 16-17. Its findings, which recommended the design of an urban food aid programme for Zimbabwe, have won widespread consensus.

WFP will be working closely with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to revive the Logistics Advisory Centre in Harare; this coordinated transport & logistics when WFP staved off famine during the southern African famine of 1991/92.



The President of Malawi declared the present food situation a State of Disaster on 27 February, stating that more than 70 percent of the population is affected.

The situation is very serious due to low maize production last season, depletion of the strategic grain reserve, erratic maize supplies in the Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC) markets and high maize prices in all local markets. A number of factors indicate that a second year of poor production is expected, which has been worsened by a lack of rain during a critical stage of maize growth, a shortage of seeds and fertilizers, and widespread early harvesting of maize. Critical food shortages have forced many families to rely on green maize in the field for survival, some as early as since January. Other people including commercial farms have resorted to harvesting the maize prematurely to avoid losing it to thieves. The reliance on famine foods is widespread.

WFP and the European Union, in collaboration with the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS), conducted a rapid food availability assessment study in February in the Southern and Central Regions. In the most severely affected areas, the assessment found that upwards to 80 percent of the families had depleted the food that they produced, and were depending on the market for food (the "hungry" season in 2001 started months earlier than normal). The commercial price for maize in local markets was 100 percent higher than the MK17/kg maize price offered by the government controlled ADMARC where maize supplies were scarce. Unfortunately, ADMARC's resources are limited, prompting the rationing of maize purchases.

The widespread consumption of green maize by households will adversely affect the final harvest, jeopardizing future food security prospects. The estimates of the overall maize harvest may still decline from the current Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation estimates of 1.6 million tons against a need of some 2 million tons for the country. The number of people targetted for relief food assistance will be determined during the joint assessment missions in Malawi, from 22 April to 20 May.

Current WFP Response

WFP is providing emergency food to about 300,000 people in Malawi this month, which was recently increased. On top of the 250,000 people who were already being assisted, in February WFP started feeding an additional 10,000 households (50,000 people) affected by the current food shortages and floods (note that Malawi is still reeling from the effects of last year's historic floods).

In March, a US$4.2 million emergency operation was launched, targetting 9 districts out of the total 27 districts in the country and 301,000 beneficiaries. WFP has provided US$1.5 million from its internal emergency credit reserve to buy food but this must be repaid with forthcoming donations which are urgently needed.

Besides these emergency operations, WFP continues and may expand development projects namely: School Feeding Programme (SF) which targets 56 primary schools in five districts, Assistance to Malnourished Groups (AMG), which targets 211 Nutritional Rehabilitation Units (NRUs) in all 27 districts and Food For Asset (FFA) which gives food in return for small-works programmes like road building, in 14 districts. WFP has also recently approved an emergency operation to assist 8,000 refugees at Dzaleka camp.


Droughts and flood have been a recurrent phenomenon in Mozambique over the last decade and have exacerbated the poverty of the majority of the population who are still recovering from decades of civil war. Particularly in 2000 and 2001, dramatic floods in the southern and central areas of the country caused widespread devastation, and the loss of crops and household assets such as livestock. Like its neighboring countries, Mozambique is now suffering from the drought conditions that have prevailed in the area since December and which have severely affected the 2002 harvest.

The 2001/2002 agricultural season is characterized by the near total absence of rain in many parts of the country. There was very little rainfall in the Southern and Central areas of Mozambique during February and this dry spell has had an adverse effect on crops throughout the area. Almost total crop failure is reported in many parts of the south, with partial crop loss in areas of central Mozambique. As a result, production of maize -- the staple food -- has suffered enormously with some 30 districts in the southern and western parts of the country experiencing from near to total crop failure. As many as 400,000 persons already have no food stocks and will likely not harvest this year.

Assessments carried out by a joint mission of the Government, FAO, WFP and the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics indicate that the situation is likely to deteriorate further, with many more people foreseen to need assistance later in the year.

Most of the rural population in Mozambique relies on subsistence agriculture and has no access to other sources of income such as paid labour. Small livestock constitute the main coping mechanism for the rural poor, but herds have not yet recovered from the vast losses of the 2000 floods. Food prices are rising at an accelerating rate and have already reached more than double the level of last year, during which the harvest was already rather mediocre. As people can no longer afford to buy the staple food, hunger is becoming increasingly widespread and threatening.

Current WFP Response

Through its flood emergency operation, WFP has been supporting the recovery of thousands of 2001 flood victims and their resettlement. In addition, the disaster mitigation activity which is part of WFP's development portfolio, targets structurally food insecure districts in southern and western Mozambique, where the population is chronically vulnerable to disasters. Due to the onset of the emergency in Mozambique, the number of people in need of relief food has continued to rise since the beginning of the year, with 120,000 people receiving a total of 1,320 metric tons in February and 191,000 beneficiaries being targetted for assistance in March and April.

WFP has commenced food-for-work projects in several districts in the south and central region suffering the effects of the current dry spell, and assistance is also being increased in Food for Development Fund districts that are affected as well.

WFP's emergency operation has been extended for one month until the end of April. A new operation to assist 400,000 people is under preparation to bridge the period until the results of the joint assessment mission from April 22 - 10 May are available.


Like in neighboring countries, the 2000/2001 harvest was well below average and in-country grain reserves were insufficient to compensate for the crop shortfall. The situation was further aggravated by developments in Zimbabwe, which substantially increased the demand for maize in the regional market, particularly from South Africa. As a result, consumer prices rose at an unprecedented rate and large numbers of people can no longer afford maize, the national staple food. Hunger in the country has now surpassed the "normal" level of structural food deficits at the household level. Many families have had to use their savings to buy food and are now much more vulnerable and food insecure.

Until the harvest of maize during the second half of April, the population will continue to suffer from a lack of access to maize, with hunger likely to increase throughout the country. So far, forecasts for the coming harvest in some areas are very pessimistic, and it is becoming more likely that the current harvest will be similar to the last year's poor harvest. While the situation during the months immediately after the harvest should alleviate some food shortages, it can be expected that the lean season will start earlier than usual and that food shortages are likely to be more widespread than this year. Assessments are being carried out in the country and should allow for an estimate of these needs by the end of May.

WFP Current Response

Late last year, WFP launched an emergency food operation to assist 1.2 million people. This operation has just been revised upwards to help 1.3 million people in the 19 most affected districts, primarily in the southern and eastern part of the country, who have been badly-hit by this season's erratic rainfall patterns. The joint assessment mission from 6-24 May, will provide further information.

Apart from assistance to victims of food shortages, WFP Zambia is also feeding some 117,000 refugees from Angola and the DRC. Donor response and transport constraints have been causing severe pipeline problems. Since January, the refugee populations have received a reduced ration (50%) and shortages of pulses mean that rations will be continue to be halved at least for the next two months.

The distribution of these commodities is carried out by distribution partners such as World Vision, Care, ADRA and the Lutheran World Federation. In addition the Zambian Red Cross, the Catholic Church, the Reformed Church of Zambia, the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia and the Programme Against Malnutrition are national organizations engaged in food distributions.


The strong downturn in the macro-economic situation in Zimbabwe, leading to significant increases in the prices of basic staples and absolute deficits in stocks of maize, has negatively affected the food security of poor households. There has been a severe drop in food production due to the Government land acquisition activities and erratic rainfall. The vulnerable throughout Zimbabwe are also experiencing hardship due to high inflation, declines in employment, declines in informal sector opportunities, and unprecedented HIV/AIDS infection levels. The major issue is therefore the access and availability of food for large segments of the population.

WFP Current Response

In October 2001, the Government of Zimbabwe appealled to the United Nations for humanitarian assistance. WFP's subsequently re-established a Country Office in Zimbabwe (which had closed in 1996) and launched an emergency operation to target 558,000 people in 19 districts in rural Zimbabwe who were not being assisted with food by NGOs or other programs. WFP's food aid distributions started on 20 February, and resumed following the presidential elections in March. WFP's distribution partners in Zimbabwe include international NGOs, such as World Vision International and CARE, and national organizations such as Christian Care and the Organization of Rural Associations for Progress (ORAP).

Since the initial WFP assessment in Zimbabwe in October 2001, all information indicates that the number of highly vulnerable people who may be in need of food assistance has risen dramatically. The onset of drought this year is aggravating the food security situation. Rains were fair until December 2001, and then failed. The 2001-02 harvest is expected to be poor due to erratic rainfall and a major reduction in the area planted in the commercial farming sector, leading to a possible major grain deficit. Assessments will be carried out during April/May to determine food aid and other needs in rural areas.

The October 2001 WFP Assessment in Zimbabwe also determined that there was also high vulnerability and probable food aid needs among poorer urban populations. In order to quantify the needs, WFP recently carried out an Urban Assessment in Harare and Bulawayo with key partners. According to the preliminary results, a significant proportion of the very poor populations are found to have inadequate income to procure sufficient food because of the deteriorating economic situation and rising prices and shortages of food staples. WFP is working on a proposal to assist urban populations.

The current WFP Zimbabwe Emergency Operation will be revised in May/June to incorporate interventions that will address the additional needs that are not being met by other partners. Joint assessment missions in Zimbabwe are from April 24- May 8, 2002.

WFP will be working closely with SADC to revive the Logistics Advisory Centre, similar to the structure which worked effectively in Harare during the 1992 drought. The major function of the centre will be to coordinate all aspects of transport and logistics related to the current effort to import and distribute food among SADC member states.

Contact: Brenda Barton, Regional Information Officer, East and Southern Africa
Page 1 e-mail: Brenda.Barton@wfp.org, Telephone: +254 733 528912