Malawi: Better crop forecast, but crisis persists

JOHANNESBURG, 24 February (IRIN) - Although Malawi is expecting a better harvest this year compared with last year's disaster, NGOs have warned that the danger is not yet over and large numbers of people will still be dependent on outside assistance for survival.
The first round of Malawi government maize crop estimates show an increase of 31 percent, up from 1.6 million mt to 2.32 million mt, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) told IRIN on Monday.

Rice increased by 14 percent from 92,000 mt to 105,000 mt, cassava, one of the drought-resistant crops that have been encouraged, rose seven percent from 1.5 million mt to 1.6 million mt.

FEWS NET deputy director Evance Chapasuka said the improved yields could be attributed to better weather conditions, despite floods earlier this year, and a programme to deliver seed and fertiliser to get farmers stripped of all resources after two bad seasons, back on their feet.

Up to three million people were targeted in the government's Extended Targeted Input Programme co-funded by the British Department for International Development (DFID) and the Norwegian government and received packs of free seed and fertiliser.

However, although the crops could probably survive another bout of heavy rain, Chapasuka said the danger lay in the rains stopping completely. Due to delayed rains and late planting last year, crops are at varying development stages throughout the country and not all are past the danger point, he explained.

But while the late rain was a welcome relief to some farmers, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has launched an urgent appeal for 56,000 households who lost their entire crops in floods that washed over some parts of the country during December and January.

"The Malawi Department of Agriculture asked for help to give those families agricultural inputs. It is too late for them to plant this season so we will wait for the winter cropping season," FAO resident representative Louise Setshwaelo said.

Setshwaelo said the inputs would have to be distributed by the end of March "at the latest" before moisture started evaporating from the soil.

At the height of the disaster last year, impoverished households told of how they could not afford to buy seed or fertiliser and faced another bleak year. The latest assessment put 3.6 million people in need of food aid throughout the country through to March.

Oxfam has warned that although conditions were expected to improve this year through the distribution of inputs to help crops, and food aid to tide people over and keep them from eating green maize, the level of destitution remained worrying.

"Next year there may not be free food aid, but these people still need to be considered. The most vulnerable still need help," Oxfam programme representative Nellie Nyan'gwa said. She cited households headed by children or by grandparents as among those who were most vulnerable. She said village committees were going to households affected by HIV/AIDS instead of waiting to be approached, to assess their needs.

World Food Programme spokesman Abdelgadi Musallam said that although the current emergency operation would end in March with a gradual phasing out of free food distribution, they would continue assisting the destitute and retain certain programmes. These included school feeding schemes and programmes for malnourished pregnant women.

A second crop estimate will be conducted in March and a final one at the June harvest.


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