Aid agencies estimate that 2.9 million Zambians will need food aid up to the next harvest in March/April this year.
A UN Resident Coordinator's report recently said the outlook for 2003 was "daunting". Food prices were "extraordinarily high ... with maize meal [prices] around double usual levels for this time of year". There were also "concerns over the prospect of another bad agricultural season after erratic rains delayed planting, and worsening rural poverty owing to the food crisis", the UN report said.
Relief efforts had been complicated by Zambia's rejection of GM food aid supplied by WFP. President Levy Mwanawasa's government cited health and environmental risks for its refusal of the grain.
WFP has undertaken to remove existing stocks of GM maize in Zambia, however, desperate villagers have resorted to looting GM reserves awaiting transfer to nearby Malawi - which will accept GM relief maize as long as it is milled.
French news agency AFP reported that George Mpombo, the minister for the hard-hit Southern Province, said about 4,600 50kg bags of GM and non-GM staple maize had been stolen in Sizanongwe, 300km from the capital Lusaka.
The starving villagers overpowered the lone police officer after word got out that the maize was to be returned to Lusaka, the news agency quoted him as saying.
WFP spokesman Richard Lee confirmed the incident and said it had happened on Saturday, 25 January. He reiterated that WFP was in the process of moving its GM stock out of Zambia.
"We are definitely moving GM stock out of Zambia to Malawi ... and we are scaling up non-GM deliveries to Zambia, hopefully we can meet our beneficiary targets. Some of it [GM maize in Zambia] is maize meal already, some is whole grain. Whole grain will be milled before distribution in Malawi [where 3.3 million need food aid]," Lee told IRIN.
With regards to the 80,000 mt of non-GM food programmed for Zambia, Lee said: "Some of it has already been distributed and consumed, some is already on the way [to the country] and some will be on the way in coming months."
Meanwhile, in order to prevent disruptions in the distribution of food aid, WFP has been using its logistical capacity to distribute government food stocks.
"We are collaborating with the government in terms of [distributing] government maize stocks dotted around the country, which we are distributing as part of the emergency operation. It has been a very close and successful cooperation with government on this," Lee added.
Apart from food aid there was an urgent need for essential non-food items such as medicines.
"The UN system urgently needs donors to come forward to support us so we can supply medicines, clean drinking water etc. to people in need," Lee added.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) highlighted the shortfall in funding for non-food items in a statement this week.
"Though the overall level of funding for the UN Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal for the Humanitarian Crisis in Southern Africa stands at 58 percent, contributions for programmes outside the food sector have been poor. As of 24 January, just 12 percent of the funding required for health sector interventions had been received. Interventions for water and sanitation have received only 13 percent of the funding that agencies had requested in July," OCHA warned.
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