[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
JOHANNESBURG, 10 January (IRIN) - Malnutrition and related diseases are expected to rise in Zimbabwe, peaking in the January to March 2005 period, warned a new report by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).
While staple cereals are increasingly unavailable in rural areas, maize prices on the parallel market continue to climb, limiting the ability of households to buy enough food to satisfy their needs, said both FEWS NET and the World Food Programme (WFP) in separate reports.
Food security is declining in most districts, particularly those in the traditionally dry Masvingo and Matebeleland provinces in the south of the country, according to WFP.
The cost of living in urban areas has increased steadily over 2004, and the majority of urban households struggle to meet their basic expenditure requirements, FEWS NET said. The "alert status" of the report was given the highest priority of "emergency".
For those that can afford it, a maize meal shortage is also being felt, according to news reports. The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe told IRIN that a cheaper alternative, an unrefined version of maize meal popular among Zimbabweans battling high prices, was not available in markets last month.
"High inflation and the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) monopoly over marketing maize are exacerbating the situation," said FEWS NET, adding that the erosion of real incomes in both rural and urban areas meant people had been forced to cut back on consumption.
The cost of food as well as non-food items increased by 92 percent from January to November 2004, but wages failed to keep up. According to the Consumer Council, the minimum industrial wage of Zim $500,000 (about US $86.96) could cover only 31 percent of the November expenditure basket.
Neither the social protection nor targeted feeding programmes established to address the food needs of the aged, orphans, chronically ill and other welfare cases could adequately address the food insecurity problem facing both urban and rural communities in Zimbabwe, said the early warning network.
The Zimbabwean government has insisted that its farmers produced a bumper maize harvest of 2.4 million mt and would not require WFP aid. But a report released by the parliamentary portfolio committee on lands and agriculture said that by October last year the GMB had received only 388,558 mt.
A Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC) report in April 2004 projected that around 41 percent of the rural population (3.3 million people) would be food insecure from December 2004 to March 2005 if the price of maize reached Zim $750/kg. Maize is already selling at above Zim $1,100/kg in most rural areas, reaching Zim $2,000/kg in the worst hit districts, FEWS NET said in a report released in November.
"At current prices, therefore, the projected food insecure rural population is arguably higher than 3.3 million people," the US-funded early warning unit noted.
The humanitarian community faces a difficult working environment in Zimbabwe, and relations between the donors and the government are strained.
But, FEWS NET urged, "The humanitarian community in Zimbabwe needs to find fresh ideas, palatable to both the government of Zimbabwe and the donor community, to expand the limited working space in which they are currently forced to operate."
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