Food gathered at this time of year usually lasts until January or February. However stocks ran out last year as early as November. As a result, many people began harvesting their crops before they were fully ripe this year. Flooding and drought in some areas have also taken their toll. This year's harvest will do little to reduce food shortages and the situation is becoming critical across the region.
In addition to poor harvests, the situation has been exacerbated by disruptions to commercial farming as a result land acquisition, the sale of strategic food reserves and failure to adequately restock in time. Transport problems and the high demand for food across the region has made importing extra stocks difficult.
As Zimbabwe faces one of the worst food security situations in 50 years the government has declared a state of disaster. According to the government, around 7.8 million people - over five million of them children - will need assistance in the next 18 months.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) estimates that crop production has fallen by around 70 per cent in recent years. Cyclone Leon-Eline destroyed crops in 1999/2000 and in the 2000/2001 and 2001/2002 extremely dry periods and excessive rains have affected harvests. In large parts of the country there has been no harvest at all. The effects of land acquisition activities have also led to fewer crops being planted, further reducing the food available.
It is expected that Zimbabwe will have a deficit for maize, the staple food crop, of between 1.2 and 1.5 million tonnes in the coming year. Christian Aid has been working with Christian Care and the Organisation for Rural Associations for Progress to provide supplementary feeding for children since September last year.
In Malawi, the harvest in 2001 was severely affected by floods, leaving people with little food for this year. A large number of the population began to experience problems in November. It was hoped that this year's harvest would bring relief but the latest estimates show this will be short-lived. Further floods and a dry spell have affected the maize crop at a crucial time in the ripening period. Latest government figures indicate that this year's harvest will be five per cent less than last year. As maize makes up 73 per cent of the total calorie intake of the population, the maize harvest is vitally important. Strategic grain stocks have been depleted and imports have been slow to arrive in the country making the situation even more serious.
Christian Aid partners have been responding to the situation since October last year with the distribution of food and rice seed. In light of the poor harvest, Christian Aid has approved =A362,555 for dry season planting. The partners are Churches Action for Relief and Development and the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Synods of Blantyre and Livingstonia. The basic 5kg seed package will enable 16,490 families to harvest a crop in September and October when existing stocks are expected to have run out.
In Zambia, people are also facing the second bad harvest in a row as drought has devastated crops in some areas. Food imports have not been reaching the country at the level required due to bottlenecks and delays on rail and road and due to several countries competing to purchase any maize available in Southern and Central Africa. In some areas women have left their families and taken hard on physical work carrying water, often collected from crocodile-infested stretches of water, for as little as $1 a day so they can buy food.
Food crisis timeline: Christian Aid response
September 2001: Zimbabwe Christian Aid partner Christian Care begins a child supplementary feeding programme for 9,000 malnourished under-fives in the Buhera and Marange districts of Manicaland.
In Masvingo province Christian Care begins a term-time distribution of nutrimeal porridge to 35,054 primary school children and 3,107 under-fives in 43 schools in Mwenezi and Chiredzi.
The Organisation for Rural Associations for Progress (ORAP) begins a distribution of 'mahewu' porridge drink to 57,280 primary school children in 124 schools in ten targeted districts in Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South and southern Midlands provinces.
October 2001: Malawi Christian Aid provides a grant to the Likulezi Project at Phalombe for emergency food aid for 923 families affected by HIV/AIDS.
January 2002: Malawi Christian Aid funds the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) in Livingstonia Synod in Malawi to provide maize seed for 29,808 families, rice seeds to 2,106 families and 'Likhuni Phala' - a vitamin-enriched porridge - to 7,224 underweight children.
March 2002: Malawi Christian Aid provides a grant to Churches Action for Relief and Development (CARD) so they can respond to the emergency. The project provides food relief to 19,000 farming families in Salima district in central Malawi, and Likhuni Phala to 10,000 malnourished under-five-year-olds in Nsanje district, in the southern part of the country.
May 2002: Malawi Christian Aid approves grants to three partners, Churches Action for Relief and Development (CARD), and the Church of Central Africa Synods in Livingstonia and Blantyre, for a total of =A362,555. This money is for seed distribution to enable a second harvest.