Lesotho + 5 more

Southern Africa faces severe food shortages: millions of people need urgent humanitarian aid

News and Press Release
Originally published
JOHANNESBURG - More than 10 million people will need humanitarian assistance in six countries across southern Africa over the coming year following yet another year of poor agricultural production caused by erratic weather together with late, and in some cases unaffordable inputs, such as fertilizer and seeds, two UN agencies and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) warned Thursday.

Reports compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) - following recent joint Crop and Food Supply Assessment Missions (CFSAMs) in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zambia - show that countries were not able to grow enough food to meet domestic needs and that even allowing for considerable commercial imports, serious food shortages will persist until the next harvest in May 2006.

Other Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC) reports, compiled by SADC, together with the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and the governments of Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, confirm the need for large-scale food assistance across the region at the household level. The region also needs to formulate national policies on staple food prices, agricultural reform, and trade at the national and regional level.

Collectively, the 13-member states of SADC produced a cereal surplus of 2.1 million tonnes compared with 1.1 million tonnes a year ago. Most of the excess was produced by South Africa which harvested a surplus of about 5.5 million tonnes this year.

The CFSAM reports, together with the Zimbabwe VAC, indicate that about 2.8 million tonnes of food will need to be commercially imported in the six countries to meet the largest part of the shortfall. In addition, the VAC reports estimate that the international community will need to provide about 730,000 tonnes of food aid to support the region's most vulnerable people.

Of the total amount of food aid required by the six countries, WFP needs $266 million or 477,000 tonnes pledged immediately so that food can either be purchased locally with cash donations, or it can be shipped to the region in time to meet the escalating needs between now and the next lean season from January to March 2006 - the period when food stocks are scarcest and people's access to cash reserves and other assets are at the lowest point.

The CFSAM and VAC assessments brought together leading agricultural and food vulnerability specialists in the region. The reports, which have been conducted annually since 2002, constitute the broadest, most objective and authoritative study of people's access to food in the region. Governments, donors and aid agencies have been awaiting these critical results since harvest-time missions in order to plan their response.

Given the gravity of the findings, WFP, FAO and SADC today called on donor governments worldwide to respond quickly and generously with food aid donations in kind or cash to avoid widespread hunger from developing into a humanitarian disaster. The assessment teams were struck by the scarcity of maize at harvest time in some countries, prompting the need for an immediate response.

Government representatives from each country, together with UN and non-governmental organisations will discuss the findings at a two-day meeting in Johannesburg on July 7 and 8. Participants will review the results and try to reach consensus on how to address food insecurity in the region.

Even though Lesotho produced 15 percent more maize this year than in 2004, assessment teams suspect the country's cereal production is in a downward trend because of long-term soil erosion, erratic weather, and the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It is estimated that 549,000 people will face significant food shortages from now until May 2006, and about 20,000 tonnes of maize will be needed to shore up the national cereal gap.

Malawi is facing its lowest maize harvest since 1992, producing just 1.25 million tonnes or 37 percent of the 3.4 million tonnes of cereals needed for national consumption each year. This decline was caused by erratic weather which has plagued Malawi together with problems in the supply of agricultural inputs. Hopes of a good harvest this year were dashed by a prolonged dry spell at the most critical growing stage. The Malawi VAC estimates that 4.2 million people or 34 percent of the population will need assistance equivalent to 272,000 tonnes of maize over the year ahead. The number of people in need will rise if maize prices increase significantly.

Much of Mozambique experienced a reasonably good cereal production in comparison to other countries in the region. According to the Mozambique CFSAM, the country produced about 1.92 million tonnes of cereals, just three percent lower than a year ago, but the production disparity between the north and the south increased significantly. Three provinces in the north produced increases 12 percent above last year, while the harvest in the south of the country declined by 43 percent. While national cassava production improved, an estimated 70,000 tonnes of cereals to feed 580,000 people will still be required this year, according to the Mozambique VAC. The need will be particularly acute in the south and central provinces where HIV/AIDS, recurrent disasters, weak health services and poverty are combining to undermine the country's food security.

While Swaziland's CFSAM indicates maize production at just over 82,000 tonnes or about 10 percent higher than last year's harvest, it is still six percent below the five-year average. The improvement is attributed to more favourable rainfall and increased use of chemical fertilizers combined with farmyard manure in the Highveld and Middleveld. However, the Lowveld and parts of Lubombo suffered serious crop failure due to poor rainfall. The assessment team also urged an urgent reform of the country's existing maize pricing and marketing policies. The Swaziland VAC estimates that up to 227,000 people will face severe food shortages from August through to the next harvest.

In Zambia a series of dry spells and early cessation of rains, especially in the southern and western provinces, together with constraints related to seeds and fertilizers, sharply reduced yields and cereal production. According the Zambia CFSAM, the late availability of seeds and fertilizers were also factors in the country's lower cereal production. As a result, Zambia needs to import 269,000 tonnes of cereals this year, compared with a surplus of 280,000 tonnes last year. The Zambia VAC estimates that 185,000 people require immediate food or cash assistance, rising to 1.2 million people by January.

A preliminary Zimbabwe VAC report indicates that 2.9 million people will require food aid over the year ahead or an estimated 36 percent of Zimbabwe's rural population. The number of people in need is based upon the Government's announced plan to import 1.2 million tonnes of maize to address food shortages, caused by drought, inadequate access to inputs and limited tillage. However, if this maize is not made available through the Grain Marketing Board, or if it increases in price, the number of people requiring food assistance could rise substantially. As a contingency, WFP plans to assist up to four million people in Zimbabwe in the year ahead.

To consult the full FAO/WFP mission reports, go to: www.wfp.org or www.fao.org

For more information or to organise interviews with delegates, please contact:

Mike Huggins, WFP Southern Africa, Tel. +27-11-517-1662 or +27-832-913-750

John Riddle, FAO Media Relations, Tel. +39-06-5705 3259 (in Rome)

Bantry Chaura, Chairperson, Regional VAC, Tel. +267-715-23-754 or +27-761-91255 (in Johannesburg for the conference)