After months of alternating drought and floods, Southern Africa is facing a critical food shortage that could threaten millions of lives. Already, more than 2.6 million people are going hungry, and the situation could worsen if immediate measures are not taken, warned health officials Wednesday (April 30).
Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe are suffering from the most severe conditions with Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland making up the list of the six most needy countries in the region.
One of the hardest hit countries is Malawi, where floods and cyclones destroyed crops of maize last year and depleted food reserves. This year's drought has worsened the situation by stunting the growth of new maize crops and preventing others from growing at all, leaving hundreds of rural farmers with no money and no food. Thousands of children are suffering from severe malnutrition caused by the food shortage; primary schools throughout the nation have been forced to close their doors, as fewer students are able to attend because of their extreme hunger.
Health officials fear disease could spread because people are beginning to eat anything they can get their hands on, such as contaminated meat. Already, an outbreak of cholera that has claimed more than 1,000 lives in the nation since November has complicated the situation, as infected residents are unable to work.
Malawi's president Bakili Muluzi declared a national disaster in February and said more than 70 percent of the population is struggling to find food.
In Zambia, severe drought has left crops of sorghum wilted. Sorghum is normally fed to livestock but this year the crops are too bitter and cattle are refusing to eat it, leaving many residents desperate.
"I saw a whole village in Zambia deserted and found that women were migrating to the border towns - walking 50 km with their babies on their backs. They were begging truck drivers and border officials to buy water from them so they could buy small bags of [food]. People are trying everything," said Judith Lewis, WFP regional director for East and Southern Africa.
In Zimbabwe, a troubled economy and continued drought have contributed to a widespread famine throughout the nation, prompting President Robert Mugabe to declare a state of disaster Tuesday (April 30). The Zimbabwean government primarily blames the extended dry season for the food shortage, but officials from the World Food Program (WFP) say that high inflation and confiscation of many farms for political reasons have added to the problem, the BBC reported.
Mugabe's declaration opens the door for international relief agencies to set up programs for some 7.2 million residents in urgent need of food.
WFP launched a program earlier this year to feed about 750,000 people facing starvation in the worst affected rural areas but only one-third of the emergency food needed has been delivered because of financial and logistical problems, according to the BBC.
In Mozambique, the situation is dire after heavy floods during the 2000 and 2001 rainy seasons washed away much needed crops. Premature harvesting of new crops and a severe drought this year have contributed to the food shortage.
Conditions are mirrored in Lesotho and Swaziland. On Monday (April 22), Lesotho Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili declared a famine, stating that the mountainous terrain has made delivering food difficult for relief organizations. WFP withdrew programs from Swaziland after residents could again feed themselves. However, recent preliminary reports indicate that thousands of residents are still in need of assistance, according to news reports.
WFP officials said $69 million is urgently needed to implement programs in the six most desperate countries. A similar appeal in March, however, yielded only $3 million.
"We have had good meetings with donors who are starting to respond, but it is not enough. We are going to need so much more if we want to address this crisis," Lewis said.
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