Bleak Christmas ahead for Zimbabwe's hungry

JOHANNESBURG - More than 2.6 million people in Zimbabwe will face a bleak Christmas this year after having had their food rations halved because of insufficient donations from the international community, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said Monday.
"It's tragic that these ration cuts have come at a time when people are normally celebrating the festive season, but if we're not given food or cash by donors, then we're simply unable to meet their food needs," said Mike Sackett, WFP Regional Director for Southern Africa.

Prospects for the first quarter of 2004 look even worse. Zimbabwe's lean season starts in January, a period when granaries tend to be empty and people enduring food shortages are most reliant on food aid.

"Without sufficient food, people won't have enough energy to cultivate crops for the year's first harvest, which is vital for stablising a household's food needs," Sackett said.

Few people still have income or savings to buy staple foods, which have jumped in price by nearly 50 percent in the last few weeks, putting them out of reach of the average family. Inflation on some commodities is running at over 500 percent. In most rural areas, there is simply not enough food to go around. Overall, food security is rapidly deteriorating.

In urban areas, water and sewerage systems are nearing collapse due to a lack of foreign currency to purchase spares and water purification chemicals. This, combined with poor hygiene, has heightened the likelihood of cholera, dysentery and diarrhoea outbreaks, which could significantly impact a weakened population's ability to assimilate what little food they have access to. It is thought that well over half of Zimbabwe's urban population live below the poverty line.

Compounding the food shortages is the spread of HIV/AIDS. Zimbabwe has an adult prevalence rate of 33 percent and some 23 percent of farm labourers are estimated to have either already died or are too sick to work. As a result, cropped areas have declined by 39 percent, while yields have declined by 59 percent and produce reaching the market has dropped by 66 percent. In addition, meager resources meant for agricultural production are increasingly being diverted to care for the sick and to pay for funeral expenses.

"HIV/AIDS is devastating communities. Food aid helps to promote good nutrition, which keeps infected people healthy and active longer," Sackett said.

"While food pledges are needed for the coming months, the real crisis is unfolding now. We urgently need new cash contributions to avoid a further reduction in rations which would have devastating consequences," Sackett added.

In July this year, WFP appealed for US$311 million to feed 6.5 million people through to June 2004. However, to date donors have only come forward with less than half of what's needed, leaving a US$161.3 million shortfall. Two-thirds of the overall amount is needed for Zimbabwe, where more than 4 million people will need WFP assistance by January.

WFP has been carrying out emergency feeding in southern Africa since 2001; the peak of operations was reached last year when 10.2 million people received WFP food aid.

Donors who made significant contributions to the most recent phase of WFP's southern Africa appeal include: the United States - US$83 million; European Commission - US$36.5 million; Britain - US$8.4 million; Sweden US$5.8 million; and, Australia US$5 million.

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency. In 2002 WFP fed 72 million people in 82 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:

Mike Huggins, WFP/Johannesburg, Tel +27-11-5171662/+27-832-913750
Richard Lee, WFP/Johannesburg, Tel +27-11-5171686/+27-83-2565021
Francis Mwanza, WFP/Rome, Tel. +39-06-65132623
Chris Endean, WFP/Rome, Tel. +39-06-65132108
Trevor Rowe, WFP/NY, Tel. +1-212-9638364