FEWS Zambia Food Security Emergency

Zambia's food crisis will continue beyond March

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) issues periodic emergencies when population groups are now, or will soon become, extremely food insecure, unable to meet their consumption needs. These groups have already exhausted their strategies for acquiring food and face imminent famine.

Issued: December 23, 2002; Valid until February 22, 2003

The number of highly food insecure Zambians is expected to peak at about 2.9 million -- about 26 percent of the population -- during December-March. These numbers stem from the sharp drop in the May-June crop harvest, loss of household income and rising food prices. According to SADC figures, Zambia requires 224,000 MT of emergency food aid between September 2002 and March 2003 alone. Slow arrivals and distribution of food aid and commercial imports are expected to push maize and maize meal prices even higher over the next several months. A favorable outcome of the next harvest could dramatically ease the present crisis, but the new cropping season is off to a shaky start due to erratic rainfall and uneven access to seeds and fertilizer, reducing the early availability of maize, the main staple. Zambia's food crisis, now considered an emergency, is likely to extend well beyond March, the end of the current response planning period.

Nature and Magnitude of the Problem

Unusually dry conditions during the 2001/02 agricultural season (November-May) resulted in lower yields and crop failures in some areas, particularly in southern Zambia. According to the SADC estimate of August, based on Government figures, national cereal production fell to 738,000 MT in 2001/02, about 24 percent below the poor level in 2000/01 and 33 percent below the five-year average (1996/97- 2000/01). The 2001/02 harvest left national cereal deficit of 711,000 MT, more than twice the five-year average. Despite informal maize imports from neighboring Tanzania and reliance on cassava and wild foods, widespread food shortages led to a rapid and unprecedented rise in maize prices that peaked in February. Due to food shortfalls and low purchasing power, many Zambians became highly food insecure. In the face of this humanitarian food crisis, the Government declared a national disaster at the end of May.

Commercial imports have been inadequate in filling the gap. Inconsistent policy signals from the Government have discouraged private sector maize millers who had agreed to import 300,000 MT of commercial maize, later halved to 150,000 MT, of which only 50,000 MT have arrived. The Government now intends to import 300,000 MT but less than 50,000 MT have been delivered. This leaves an unfilled cereals gap of about 350,000 MT until the end of the 2002/03 marketing year on April 30. Due to slow food aid deliveries and disruptions in the pipeline, this gap could increase to as much as 450,000 MT compared with domestic human consumption requirements of 1.445 million MT.

Food availability and access have dropped significantly under these conditions. Many rural households do not have adequate cereal stocks and little access to paid employment opportunities. Sales of small animals are less and less effective as a means of coping with hunger due to deteriorating prices that reduce the terms of trade of animals for cereals. As of August, about two-thirds of rural Zambians resorted to reducing the number of daily meals, about half occasionally skipped eating all day, and more than one-third reported eating more wild foods than usual, including less palatable (and potentially harmful) wild foods eaten only in desperate times. Fortunately, households in cassava-growing areas have been able to intensify cassava production to compensate for lower maize production. Most of Zambia's food aid is channeled through the Southern Africa Crisis Response Emergency Operation (EMOP), managed by the World Food Program (WFP), for the period July 2002-March 2003. WFP plans to cover two-thirds of the food aid cereal needs identified by the FAO/WFP Crop production and Food Supply Mission in May, providing 130,603 MT of food for 1.7 million beneficiaries in Zambia. A second food aid pipeline has been set up through a consortium of major NGOs under the Government's Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU) to cover people and areas outside the WFP EMOP where these NGOs are active; some NGOs also operate independent food relief programs. The SADC-supported National Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC) released its first-round Emergency Food Security Assessment Report on September 16. According to this assessment, up to 2.9 million Zambians -- 26 percent of the population -- require 224,000 MT of emergency food aid as well as non-food emergency humanitarian aid for the seven-month period, September 2002 through March 2003.

Short-term Outlook and Prognosis

The short-term outlook gives little room for optimism. Food security in Zambia is deteriorating, particularly in southern Zambia and valley districts, where maize production fell 50-75 percent below average in the worst affected areas and where many households have run out of their own-produced cereal stocks. Maize prices increased sharply between November and December in rural areas and mealie meal prices are rising in both rural and urban areas; the price of the cheaper roller meal, preferred by lower income groups, is rising close to the more expensive breakfast meal, removing roller meal as a lower-cost substitute for the poor. As prices approach their seasonal peak, more and more poorer consumers will be priced out of the market.

Food aid distributions to date are not keeping pace with increased need. Only 32,000 MT of maize and maize meal had been distributed as of mid-December, according to the DMMU -- only 13 percent of maize and maize meal requirements and 9 percent of total food aid requirements between September and March. On average, less than half (47 percent) of the estimated maize and maize meal requirements were met for September and October (Figure 2). As a means of coping with hunger, many rural people have resorted to labor migration, seeking work in the fields of better-off neighbors at the expense of their own fields. This will further reduce the area cultivated during the current agricultural season (November-May) or prevent weeding during critical periods due to labor scarcities at home. Ironically, these efforts to cope are catching already food insecure people in a vortex of ever-declining crop yields and production. The onset of the 2002/2003 rainy season has been generally disappointing and unfavorable for early planting. The 4-week dry spell in November wilted most newly germinated maize, forcing farmers to replant using scarce maize seed. Rainfall activity has increased since the second dekad (10-day period) of December, possibly signaling the true start of season. Farmers are now plowing and planting maize and groundnuts, 2-4 weeks late. However, recent analysis of El Niño conditions suggests below-normal rainfall during the December-March period, coinciding with the critical months of January and February when the maize crop is tasselling and grain filling.

The rise in prices of food staples has undermined access to food, increasing numbers of vulnerable people. Moreover, late-planted maize will not be available as immature ("green") maize in the month or two preceding the main harvest. Given the poor start to the agricultural season, it is already clear that relief activities will have to extend beyond March, the end of the current WFP-managed Emergency Operation.

Food Security Threats to Particular Groups

Based on community interviews during the first-round VAC Emergency Food Security Assessment, the surveyed population was classified as wealthy (about 12 percent), middle to average (18 percent), poor (38 percent) and poorest (32 percent). The poorest households -- those with the lowest food consumption and least dietary diversity -- are those with the oldest heads of household and smallest household size (signifying lower labor availability and productivity); the fewest animals (lack of assets to sell); the smallest cultivated area (less own-produced crops and greater dependence on the market); the lowest income (little access to markets); and greatest number requiring food aid (89 percent), compared with the poor (72 percent), middle (36 percent) and wealthy (17 percent). Equally striking was the breakdown in gender terms. Women-headed households account for a higher proportion of the poorest households; have an average food deficit (while male-headed households have an average food surplus); have fewer assets; and have far lower income. Whereas members of male-headed households are able to migrate in search of casual work, female-headed households are often less mobile (where young children are present) and resort to reducing food consumption, switching to cheaper foods and gather ing more wild foods. Other particularly vulnerable households include those with orphans (often raised by grandparents) and households with chronically ill members (possibly due to HIV/AIDS).

Responses and Adequacy of these Responses

Food Aid Imports. Response to the WFP EMOP has been limited to date (about 70 percent of regional food tonnage, as of December 17). Zambia has received substantially less than its needs. With the approach of the hungry period in January-March, greater effort will be required to speed deliveries and meet mounting food needs. Moreover, reaching the vulnerable has not always been successful. Lack of a transparent food aid distribution system to meet the needs of target groups poses a problem at the district level. Some districts have received too much and others too little. Some areas may not be reached at all due to the bad state of the roads during the rainy season. The Government of Zambia continues to maintain its policy, announced in August, of not accepting genetically modified (GM) maize to protect consumer and environmental safety on grounds that the short- and long-term effects of GM foods are not fully understood. New food aid imports must be certified to contain no GM food. Rejection of some 43,000 MT -- equivalent to about 5 weeks of requirements -- will cause significant delays in finding non-GM maize from other sources and could affect the pipeline.

Commercial Imports. Commercial maize imports have slowed to dangerous levels. On June 2 the Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Millers Association of Zambia for the orderly import of maize to cover the country's expected shortfall. Millers would be given access to foreign exchange for importing 300,000 MT of maize duty-free while the Government would import and hold 100,000 MT of maize in a strategic reserve, to be released onto the market, in consultation with the Millers Association, in the event of exceptionally high maize prices. The Millers Association adjusted its import plans on August 12 to 150,000 MT.

To date, the Millers have imported only 50,000 MT (due to domestic pricing concerns) and the Government only 50,000 MT (due to inadequate funding). As of late-December, the Government is seeking suppliers from Tanzania and elsewhere for the import of 300,000 MT of maize, of which 100,000 MT will be held in reserve; a key challenge for Government will be finding the funds to pay for these imports. Given uncertainties about the Government's import program, few millers want to tie up scarce foreign exchange in large maize inventories that might be undersold by cheaper Government maize. The delivered price of $245/MT is equivalent to K50,000 per 50-kg bag of mealie meal whereas the Millers believe prices above K160,000 will not sell. Until new maize arrives, imports depend on the pace of donor food aid deliveries.

Support for the 2002/03 Agricultural Season (November-June). The Government's input support program that began in November aims to distribute 2,400 MT of maize seed, of which about one-third has now been delivered to designated distribution centers. The input support program attracted broad participation from NGOs who placed large seed orders for their drought mitigation programs. This NGO participation has crowded out seed availability for commercial growers, forcing them to buy seeds from South Africa as Zimbabwe now bans seed exports. Seed distribution by donor-supported NGOs is underway although seed distribution by Government-supported NGOs is slow and could compromise the potential harvest in May-June. Based on the normal crop calendar, it is getting late for planting maize and groundnuts, though there is still time for planting sorghum and millet.

A Government-sponsored fertilizer subsidy program is targeted to 120,000 small-scale farmers for the 2002/03 cropping season with the aim of expanding maize production by 300-350,000 MT, a somewhat optimistic projection based on favorable rainfall patterns. Farmers will pay half of the cost of the fertilizer, but many are finding this too expensive. By mid-November, about 70 percent of the 48,000 MT fertilizer program had been delivered to district distribution centers.

Macro-economic Woes. Compounding its food security problems, Zambia faces an unexpected budget deficit, rising inflation and depreciation of the Kwacha. As the year ends, the Government may have to ask Parliament for a supplemental allocation to cover the cost of extra maize imports. Though relatively manageable, inflation now runs at 16.7 percent per year, with increases dominated by maize price increases. The Kwacha slipped 13 percent against the dollar between November and mid-December, raising the local currency price of maize imports. Worse, a poorly performing economy is unlikely to provide essential household income to offset crop and livestock income losses.

Regional Review of Progress in Managing the Food Crisis. The recent SADC Pre/Post Season Regional Forum in Maseru, (December 10-12) found that 1) the on-going response to the food crisis in southern Africa has not stabilized food security; 2) the 2002/03 crop season now underway has already been compromised; 3) national food shortages are likely to increase; 4) current emergency conditions are worsening; and 5) famine is a possible outcome in Southern Africa, given the insufficient response to the current food shortages.

Recommendations for Further Action

To avoid a rapid deterioration in food availability and access in view of limited food resources and escalation of this emergency, FEWS NET urges rapid action on the following supply-side recommendations for improving food availability:

  • The Government and its NGO partners should speed up distribution of seeds to late-planting farmers so they may participate in the current growing season.
  • The Government should set a clear, market-oriented pricing policy for the sale of held maize stocks held by the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) to assure commercial grain traders and millers that they will not be undersold due to dumping and to motivate them to import maize to their full capacity.
  • The Government should urgently import 350,000 MT of cereals to meet the outstanding balance of consumption requirements through April 30 and another 100,000 MT for the May-June period in the likely event of a third consecutive below-average harvest and widespread food shortages and high prices;
  • Donors should speed up delivery of pledged food aid to Zambia to enable WFP and its NGO partners to reach more needy groups during the hungry period (January-March) when needs are greatest;
  • While waiting for expedited food aid deliveries, the Government, committee based committees and WFP should discuss practical options to refine targeting methods at the sub-district (ward) level to reach the most highly food insecure people -- female-headed households, elderly-headed households, households with less than 4 head of cattle and households with chronically ill members.
  • Lastly, the Government and its partners should invest in longer-term sustainable recovery that will help "drought-proof" the country and avoid food emergencies. Such investments could take the form of promotion of livestock production and drought-tolerant millet and sorghum as substitutes to maize. Better management of water resources needs to be addressed through irrigation and damming.

The rise in prices of food staples has undermined access to food, increasing numbers of vulnerable people. Moreover, late-planted maize will not be available as immature ("green") maize in the month or two preceding the main harvest. Calling a halt to relief activities in March, the end of the current EMOP, would be ill-advised and irresponsible.

Accordingly, FEWS NET makes the following demand-side recommendations to improve food access:

  • The Zambian Government (particularly the DMMU), WFP and Zambia's partners should revise and extend contingency plans by sector or livelihood zone for the period after March, because the present crisis could last another 18 months, until the 2003/04 harvest in May-June 2004, the earliest certain population groups will be able to get back on their feet.
  • The Zambian Government, particularly the DMMU, and its partners should strengthen national early warning and vulnerability assessment networks to guide contingency and response planning.

Key National and Sub-national Indicators to Watch

Given the relation between cereal supply (availability) and prices (access), FEWS NET will closely monitor aggregate grain supplies at the national level, including commercial imports, FRA stocks and the food aid pipeline.

FEWS NET will also monitor price levels around the country, including the Kwacha-dollar exchange rates, a key determinant of the landed cost and affordability of imported maize.

As the outcome of the present food crisis will be influenced by the outcome of the 2002/03 harvest, FEWS NET will closely monitor the availability and affordability of crop inputs, seeds and fertilizer, as well as rainfall patterns during the season. At the rural and urban household levels, FEWS NET will assess staple food prices and terms of trade for the main products.

FEWS NET will closely monitor food aid targeting and distributions to identified groups.

FEWS NET will watch trends in child malnutrition and disease outbreaks in people and livestock.

FEWS NET intends to remain an advocate for prompt, meaningful action through these alert statements.