Malawi + 7 more

Southern Africa food crisis deepens: WFP appeals for urgent response

Nairobi, Kenya - The UN World Food Programme today warned that countries across southern Africa will face a significant rise in food aid needs in the months ahead, which will compound critical food aid shortfalls for 2.6 million people already suffering from food shortages.
Natural disasters and high maize prices have forced hundreds of thousands of people throughout the region to rely on food aid for survival. Donor response to repeated WFP appeals has been sluggish, and now the Agency urgently requires US$69 million (145,866 tons of food) to ward off an imminent break in food supplies particularly for people in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

"If we can't get enough food to feed 2.6 million people right now, what will happen when potentially millions more need our help in the months ahead," said Judith Lewis, WFP's Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, who today issued a donor alert urging for immediate assistance to southern Africa. "Much more must be swiftly done to stave off the spread of hunger and malnutrition."

According to initial estimates of the upcoming April/May harvest, southern Africa will experience yet another year of low maize production and economic hardship, made worse by a vicious dry spell which has swept through the region and withered crops. Coming on the heels of a similarly poor 2000/2001 production year, the effect of this year's poor harvest could be devastating.

WFP and aid agency partners are gearing up for a major response, with a number of joint assessment missions about to fan out to six countries, including Swaziland, in the region to review the current emergency, including health and nutritional needs. A thorough assessment of the April harvest production will be made to determine the consequent commercial import and food aid requirements.

In the meantime, despite WFP food distributions underway in the southern Africa region, hunger continues to worsen for a growing number of people who cannot afford current high maize prices, and who have sold off their meager belongings. While the upcoming harvest should make maize more available and affordable, many people remain weakened and impoverished by one of the worst periods of pre-harvest hunger in years.

HIV/AIDS rates across southern Africa are also extraordinarily high. An absence of food puts an even greater strain on HIV/AIDS victims and the family members struggling to care for them.

Zambia: WFP is feeding 1.3 million people hit by drought and floods last year, but only 40 percent of the US$19 million required has been received. As a result, WFP has just enough to feed the most vulnerable groups, against tremendous pressure to assist much larger numbers. Many people have resorted to eating immature, green maize to survive. Others go hungry. WFP teams report that the traditional maize belt of Zambia has been hard hit by the lack of rain, dashing prospects of a favorable upcoming harvest.

WFP is also struggling to feed in Zambia a rising number of Angolan and Congolese refugees, currently 117,000, who have been on half-rations since January due to a lack of food. A food aid shipment en-route from Durban, South Africa will temporarily alleviate the problem, however US$9.2 million is still urgently required up until the end of 2002, to avoid similar ration cuts in the near future.

Zimbabwe: WFP food aid distributions re-started on 20 March after a lull during the election period. Only 30 percent of the US$60 million required have been received, therefore food aid for half a million rural Zimbabweans could run out by July. The impact of land reform and economic hardship, combined with failed rains in key production areas, mean that Zimbabwe may have to import more than one million tons of maize from the already-tight surpluses in South Africa. The number of people needing food aid is set to rise. Skipping meals and eliminating the staple maize-meal from their diets will likely continue.

Malawi: Maize prices have skyrocketed to as much as 500 percent more than normal. Goats and other belongings are being sold at throw-away prices. WFP has not yet received confirmed contributions to its US$ 4.2 million emergency operation to feed 255,000 people. WFP has provided US$1.5 million from its internal emergency credit reserve to buy food quickly for distribution, but this must be repaid with forthcoming contributions. WFP has also channeled food aid from other operations underway in Malawi to the most critical areas, including nutritional rehabilitation units where mothers and children are flocking for help. Malnutrition rates are unseasonably high. The National Grain Reserve has been depleted.

WFP has also not received any food aid pledges against its US$724,000 operation to feed 8,000 refugees who continue to trickle in -- sometimes 100 people per week -- from neighbouring countries, such as Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo.

This year's regional drought has also struck Mozambique, and thousands of people are likely to need assistance over the months to come. WFP is planning a new emergency operation, with the number of people requiring food aid now being finalized. WFP will complete this month an operation to feed 170,000 flood victims, some of whom were subsequently affected by drought.

Similarly, international assistance for Lesotho and Swaziland -- which don't normally require emergency food aid -- may also be required. However, the precise numbers in need will be determined during the forthcoming assessment missions. WFP has already directed food aid from existing disaster mitigation projects in Lesotho, to help some 36,000 people in the worst-affected pockets of the country.

"The situation for people all over southern Africa is very bleak, but I'm confident that help will start to come," said Lewis. "It is extremely clear that a major crisis is on the horizon - now is the time to act to prevent what is now a crisis, from developing into a major disaster."

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WFP is the United Nations' front-line agency in the fight against global hunger. In 2000, WFP fed more than 73 million people in 84 countries including most of the world's refugees and internally displaced people.

WFP Global School Feeding Campaign -- As the largest provider of nutritious meals to poor school children, WFP has launched a global campaign aimed at ensuring the world's 300 million undernourished children are educated.

For more information please contact:

Judith Lewis
Regional Director
WFP ODK/Kampala
Tel. +256-41-231112; 256-77-222 999

Angela Van Rynbach
WFP Cluster Manager
WFP Southern Africa
Tel. +258-82-301428

Trevor Rowe
WFP Chief Spokespersonr
WFP Rome
Tel. +39-06-65132602