Malawi + 4 more

Southern Africa food crisis deepens, aid gathers

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By Allan Seccombe

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A massive food relief mission is gathering steam to combat southern Africa's worst food shortage in a decade as millions go hungry and famine looms after crop failures, the United Nations food aid arm said.

The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) is assessing aid for six southern African states, three of which are in urgent need of food. Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe are seen as critical while Lesotho, Mozambiqe and Swaziland can wait before food arrives.

The WFP is already feeding 2.6 million people in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Deepening the crisis is the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has killed thousands of people and is leaving millions more ill. Aid groups say people are either too weak to work their land or families are caught up caring for their sick relatives.

Hungry people are also more susceptible to opportunistic diseases that infect people hit by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that leads to full-blown AIDS and ultimately death.

"Malawi faces the risk of imminent famine if the response (to food appeals) doesn't come, but Zimbabwe has the greatest potential for disaster because of the numbers involved and the gravity of the situation," said WFP spokeswoman Brenda Barton.

A famine, aid officials explained, entails the migration of large numbers of people due to total depletion of food in their area.

"We're not there now -- people have something to eat, albeit wild vegetables, cassava leave and so on and there is no widespread migration. There are worrying malnutrition rates, but we need more information," Barton told Reuters.

EL NINO WORRIES

An added fear is a potential El Nino-induced drought at the end of this year in the main summer grains growing period.

Meteorologists and aid bodies are waiting for definitive forecasts of how severe the El Nino could be in June.

El Nino is a weather pattern caused by warming sea surface temperatures off western South America, which periodically brings drought or flooding to various parts of the planet.

One of the key challenges for aid organisations is sourcing food. South Africa, which is normally the breadbasket of the region, expects to have barely enough to feed itself and its neighbours who are regular customers.

The regular customers are forecast to import 500,000 tonnes in the coming 2002/03 marketing year (May to April), about 10,000 tonnes more than the previous year, according to figures from Grain SA, the producers' representative body.

South Africa expects an 8.5 million tonne maize harvest this year, more than last season's 7.2 million tonnes, but the demand for maize is greater from the region.

"We are worried that our northern neighbours are going to suck us dry of maize," said an official at Grain SA, who declined to be named. "We are already importing maize to fill the gap here and also because it's cheaper than local maize."

South African maize prices have rocketed this year as demand from the region climbed and the picture of the severity of the situation begins to unfold.

REGIONAL MEETING

Assessments of the crisis will begin filtering in from the WFP and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation from mid-May ahead of a meeting of aid agencies and southern African governments expected in South Africa on June 6 and 7.

Another key area the aid agencies are looking closely at is the ability to move food around the region because of dilapidated transport infrastructure.

CARE International, a development agency which helps distribute food once it gets into a country, said from Malawi that people were reaping their maize too early because they were hungry and to prevent rampant theft of grain.

"The problem is that the harvest is going to finish a lot earlier and by July or August we could see very serious hunger indeed," said Nick Osborne, CARE Malawi's country director.

Malawi's President Bakili Muluzi said last week the country is expected to harvest about 1.4 million tonnes of maize, well short of domestic demand of two million tonnes because people have started eating the current crop of maize from the field.

"This means that starvation will persist and spill into the next season," Muluzi said.

In its latest report on Zimbabwe's food situation, the U.S.-based Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) said preliminary estimates showed the country would need to import up to 1.4 million tonnes of maize to meeting 2002/03 demand.

"Preliminary estimates put the food insecure population in Zimbabwe at three million by June 2002," FEWSNET said.

FEWSNET said the WFP's aid appeal for Zimbabwe had only yielded 25 percent of the money needed for food purchases since its launch in September 2001.

"Greater humanitarian effort is required by both government and donors to avert a humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe," the network warned.

The food shortage in Zambia is estimated up to 720,000 tonnes and an estimated 1.2 million people are going hungry. In Mozambique an preliminary estimate by the WFP puts the food need at 21,000 tonnes for 400,000 people this year, said Inyene Udoyene, the WFP's spokesman in Maputo.

In Swaziland, farmers have produced about 70,000 tonnes of maize compared to domestic need of 120,000 tonnes. Some 130,000 people need food assistance, Ben Nsibandze, the director of the National Disaster Relief Force, told Reuters.

Lesotho has declared a food emergency and has asked for help to feed at least 34,000 people.

(Additional reporting by Stella Mapenzauswa in Harare, Frances Christie in Maputo, Alvin Pearson in Malawi)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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