Food emergency in Malawi Aug 2002

Situation Report
Originally published
Southern Africa is facing its worst hunger crisis in 10 years. Malawi President Bakili Muluzi estimates that at least 600,000 metric tons of food is needed to stave off widespread starvation in his country, which is among the worst hit in the region. The United Nations estimates that the cost of procuring and distributing these supplies is $148 million.
The emergency food operation in Malawi, headed by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), is divided into two phases that run from June 2002 to March 2003. Save the Children has been appointed the primary non-governmental organization to run this operation in the districts of Mangochi and Balaka, distributing 23,524 metric tons, about 11.3 percent of the total country's expected food aid.

Save the Children recently procured 520 metric tons of maize and 115 metric tons of corn-soy blend, which is targeted for 10,400 families in the Mangochi, Balaka and Blantyre districts. The food supplies were secured under the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's "Hunger Relief in Malawi" program. A nutrition assessment is being conducted jointly with CARE and will cover four districts: Mangochi, Balaka, Lilongwe and Dowa.

This latest procurement of food supplies is in addition to Save the Children's distribution of corn and blended foods to about 7,000 severely undernourished families in the Mangochi District of southern Malawi, which was declared to be in a state of disaster by Malawi officials in February. More than 70 percent of the population is affected by this famine.

The causes of the food emergency in southern Africa are complex, but are mainly driven by irregular rainfall, economic crises, and the depletion of strategic grain reserves. Contributing factors are the high incidence of HIV/AIDS throughout most of the southern Africa, and a recent outbreak of cholera in Malawi in particular. Many farming families in rural districts harvested "next to nothing" because of poor rains or floods, and in some cases crops were destroyed by hippopotamus and elephants, said Kerren Hedlund of WFP. "Some harvested nothing because they spent prime time looking for food instead of working in their farms," she said.

"The hunger crisis in Malawi is worse than anything the country has seen since 1992 when southern Africa last experienced drought and famine," said Rudy von Bernuth, Save the Children's Associate Vice President of Humanitarian Response, who recently returned from Malawi. "All of the funds that we raise for this emergency will go toward the purchase of food, such as beans, corn and blended children's foods, and the personnel costs to manage their delivery."

Malawi Deputy Field Office Director Tom McCormack said he has seen people selling off household assets, such as livestock, at a fraction of their value in order to sustain their families. "People are eating wild foods, such as roots and grass seeds and the cost of maize is several times what it was at this time last year," he said. "Children chew the inner pulp from maize stalks in an attempt to extract something of nutritional value. Schools are 50 percent empty as tired and desperate families look for food. The coming harvest probably will not sustain people this year for more than four to five months. Coffin-making workshops abound and appear to be one of the few thriving industries."

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that as many as 5 million people in southern Africa -- with the largest numbers in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi -- are suffering from severe food shortages. According to a recent UNICEF assessment in Malawi, some 45,000 children are facing severe malnutrition, with the situation likely to worsen in the 2002-2003 lean season.

Key issues affecting children:

  • Children are hungry and health centers are seeing a sharp increase in severely malnourished children.

  • Absenteeism at schools among children and teachers is rapidly rising.

  • Depletion of family income and assets forces children into the labor market.
Learn more about Save the Children's other programs for children in emergencies and crisis.

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