Lesotho + 4 more

World must galvanize to combat HIV/AIDS and stave off a complete and total disaster in Southern Africa

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JOHANNESBURG - The international community has so far succeeded in averting a humanitarian catastrophe in southern Africa, but the monumental proportions of the HIV/AIDS pandemic is unleashing a disaster which threatens the very existence of countries," warned two United Nations Special Envoys after a week-long UN inter-agency mission to four southern African countries.
"While responding to the severe food crisis in southern Africa, an even greater disaster has been unearthed. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is compounding the premature death of thousands of productive people - particularly women -- across the region, and is wrecking the livelihoods of millions more while sowing the seeds of future famines," said James T. Morris, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa.

The calamitous conjunction of HIV/AIDS, severe food shortages and chronic poverty has left more than 15 million in need of assistance across the region. Meanwhile, the pandemic is changing the nature of famine in Africa. It is cutting agricultural productivity, weakening and decimating the population and undermining people's ability to recover from natural and man-made shocks.

"Without a radical and urgent approach, which addresses the terrifying reality of the pandemic and how it is indelibly woven with chronic food shortages, even worse crises will stalk vulnerable people for generations to come. I am overwhelmed by the very real prospect of nations of orphans," said Morris.

"When the body has no food to consume, the virus consumes the body," said Stephen Lewis, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. "The incredible assault of HIV/AIDS on women in particular has no parallel in human history. Women are the pillars of the family and community - the mothers, the care-givers, the farmers. The pandemic is preying on them relentlessly, threatening them in a way that the world has never yet confronted."

The unique and pressing nature of the humanitarian crisis in southern Africa prompted the inclusion of Lewis on Morris' second mission to the region. It is also Lewis' second tour of southern Africa in the past two months, reflecting the priority given to tackling the pandemic by the UN and Secretary General Kofi Annan himself.

Following their mission to Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia, the Envoys will pass their findings back to the UN and issue a report calling for a bold, new approach from the entire international community. In particular, they will advocate that current and future programmes of every UN agency be formed through the lens and reality of HIV/AIDS and its impact on women and children.

The mission also reviewed current responses to the humanitarian crisis in southern Africa. Millions of the most vulnerable people in the worst-affected parts of the region have benefited from international food aid, while many communities have been provided with essential non-food items, such as seeds and medicines.

"When I last visited in September, southern Africa was facing a catastrophe but this has been averted by a remarkably swift and effective response from international donors, regional governments, UN agencies and NGOs," said Morris. "There is still an enormous amount of work to do and hurdles to overcome over the next few months, but we are in a position to prevent the current crisis from becoming a tragedy in the longer-term."

In Lesotho, erratic weather has already undermined chances of an improved harvest this year, while in Swaziland and southern Mozambique a lengthy dry spell after planting has once again hit crop potential across large swathes of the country. In Malawi and Zambia, recent rains have fuelled hopes of a much-better maize harvest than last year but the situation - although stabilized by international assistance - remains precarious with millions of people still vulnerable.

The situation in Zimbabwe is cause for serious concern, with over half the population currently in need of assistance. Along with continued political turbulence and economic decline, people in Zimbabwe will experience continuing food shortages in the coming year due to a combination of dry weather, lack of affordable food on the market, and a dramatically reduced amount of land under cultivation.

The UN is working with local institutions to closely monitor the remainder of the rainy season and crop development with an eye to determining appropriate levels of emergency food aid beyond the upcoming harvest in April/May.

"This current crisis is far from over but the response has already illustrated what the UN does best - saving the lives of thousands of people and preserving the livelihoods of millions by working with governments, donors and NGOs," said the Envoys. "We know that the world's attention is focused elsewhere at the moment but it is crucial that the UN and the international community continue to channel their efforts into refocusing on and responding to the crisis in southern Africa and across the continent."

Prega Ramsamy, the Executive Secretary of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and Julia Taft, Assistant Administrator for UNDP and Director of the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery were among the mission members, which also included representatives from UNICEF, UNAIDS, WFP, OCHA, WHO, and FAO.

Itinerary

Lesotho: January 22-23
Zimbabwe: January 23-25
Malawi: January 25-27
Zambia: January 27-28
Johannesburg: January 28-29

For more information please contact:

Mike Huggins, Tel. +27-11-5171655 (off); +27-83-2913750 (cell)
Jennifer Abrahamson, Tel. +27-11-5171656 (off); +27-83-3004954 (cell)
Brenda Barton (traveling with the S.Envoy), Tel. +27-83-4601775

The final mission report will be made available to the media

For a virtual tour of the Special Envoy's trip, visit www.wfp.org