World Vision Zimbabwe director Rudo Kwaramba told IRIN on Tuesday that more and more people in the region were becoming vulnerable due to drought-induced crop and cattle losses.
The reason Matabeleland appeared to be one of the hardest hit was that it was normally a dry, arid region, Kwaramba said.
"They don't generally get rains anyway, even in a good year. We cannot say conclusively whether Matabeleland South is worst off, but it's understood it will be harder hit than other areas during a drought period," she noted.
Matabeleland is ranked at five on the rainfall scale in the country - one being the wettest and five being the driest. "[Therefore], most of the commercial activity in Matabeleland south is around cattle ranching as opposed to cropping," Kwaramba said.
A World Vision statement said the drought, which "many are calling the worst in half a century" was affecting 900,000 people in Matabeleland. World Vision has been providing relief assistance to the region since February last year.
"The affects of the drought are striking in the Matobo district in the southern region, about 40 km out of [the second city of] Bulawayo. The land looks dry and barren and a few, wilted crops are all that remain of farmers efforts in the region," World Vision said.
"The maize should be half a metre to a metre tall by now, but the land is completely barren," Jonathan Moyo, World Vision field coordinator for the Matobo district, was quoted as saying.
He explained that in many cases, farmers simply stopped planting once it was clear the rains were not coming.
Compounding crop losses have been severe cattle losses. "I understand there's an estimation that up to 20,000 head of cattle are in danger of dying [because of] the drought," Kwaramba noted.
This would worsen an already bad situation.
"The necessary criteria for registering to receive food aid were based on questions like how many cattle you have, so many people did not qualify for food aid. These peoples' situations have now changed midway and they were not [previously] registered for food aid.
"The numbers [of vulnerable people] have increased over the lean period, which stretches from around December to March while people planted and wait for the new harvest. But with the increasing dryness we will have a situation, I think, which is going to become very difficult to manage," Kwaramba added.
More relief food needed to be brought in, and "other pressing issues, like the outbreak of cholera, need to be attended too".
Another registry of beneficiaries needed to be compiled to capture the group of people who were now in need of food aid who did not qualify for it during the previous registration.
"In partnership with USAID [US Agency for International Development], World Vision is registering more beneficiaries in Bulilimamangwe and Beitbridge [in the south], we are also expanding the programme to Lupane and Bubi [in the north] in partnership with WFP [World Food Programme]," Kwaramba said.
There was an urgent need for "a concerted effort to allow those who would like to distribute food to get the necessary permits to bring food in and distribute food ... churches are also interested in bringing in food [but lacked the proper registration for doing so]", she added.
"If there are delays in registering [organisations] then there are delays in bringing food in," Kwaramba concluded.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Drought Monitoring Unit in Harare has warned that the 2002-2003 season could see below normal rainfall for southwestern Zimbabwe. This has fuelled fear of further food shortages next year, the World Vision statement said.
"The weather phenomenon, El Niño, is being blamed for below-average rainfall across Southern Africa. According to the latest Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) assessment, most of the region has only recorded between 1 mm and 10 mm of rain with even less rainfall occurring over portions of South Africa, Zimbabwe and central to southern Mozambique.
"For many families living in Matobo and elsewhere in Zimbabwe, the wait between now and the next harvest in March next year will be a long one. Until then, many people will be relying solely on food aid to survive," said World Vision.
Aid agencies estimate that almost seven million people in Zimbabwe require food aid until the next harvest around March 2003.
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