HARARE, 23 July 2007 (IRIN) - An urgent call on Zimbabwe's ZANU-PF government and the international donor community to mobilise food aid to avert an impending crisis has been met with assurances by government that "no one will starve".
"There is a general consensus that Zimbabwe's 2006/07 cereal production has to be complemented by imports of over one million mt [metric tonnes] if the country is to meet cereal requirements for the 2007/08 consumption year," said the latest overview of sub-Saharan food security by Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS NET), published in June.
"The government and donor community need to mobilise for an immediate and coordinated response to address the growing levels of [food] insecurity in the country," said the US-based FEWS NET, which provides food security information on 17 countries in the region.
Zimbabwe's agriculture minister, Rugare Gumbo, admitted in June that the country was facing a food crisis after a growing season marred by drought and widespread shortages of inputs, and that maize production of between 600,00mt and 800,000mt "falls far short of the national requirement of about two million mt".
After publication of the FEWS NET report, the deputy minister of information, Bright Matonga, told the official daily newspaper, The Herald, that "no one will starve".
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) recently conducted a joint assessment of food security and found that Zimbabwe had produced around 1,055,000mt of cereals, around 300,000mt more than government estimates.
The assessment said more than a third of the population would require food aid by early 2008, and the country would have to import a total of 1,052,000mt of cereals: 813,000mt of maize, and the remainder as sorghum, wheat and millet.
To partially bridge the gap, the government has bought 400,000mt of maize from Malawi, of which 70,000mt had been imported by June, according to FEWS NET.
The current winter wheat-growing season started poorly as a result of inadequate fuel, fertiliser, equipment and expertise, while an unreliable electricity supply has hampered irrigation.
Food insecurity was worsening, the report said, particularly in the southwestern parts of the country, which traditionally experienced arid conditions.
Here households were "already running out of food stocks from their current harvests", a situation that was being compounded by the unreliability of other sources of cereals, like the Grain Marketing Board (GMB), the government's official buyer.
The hyperinflationary environment - over 4,000 percent annually - has led to a steep rise in grain prices, making it difficult for consumers to access staple foods such as maize, FEWS NET said.
The report cited Chimanimani and Nyanga in Manicaland Province, the southern districts of Masvingo Province, as well as Hwange and Nkayi in Matebeleland North Province as having been particularly affected by rocketing prices.
"The annual rate of inflation has continuously increased, and most households have not been able to meet their minimum food requirements and non-food requirements, and instead have cut back on expenses for education, transport and medical services," FEWS NET commented.
"Soon after harvests, most households are already out of own production stocks," and have consumed what was already often a diminished or poor crop.
Around 80 percent of the country's 12 million people live below the poverty datum line, with the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) saying an average family of six needed Z$5.5 million (US$22 at the parallel market rate of Z$250,000 to US$1) to sustain themselves in May.
The government imposed stringent price controls after daily increases in the prices of commodities and other services by business attempting to cushion itself against the effects of inflation.
Scores of businesspeople were jailed for not complying with government's edict and many formal-sector firms heeded the instructions, but others have scaled down their operations or stopped production, resulting in an acute shortage of food items and a growing reliance on sourcing food from the parallel market, where goods are available but at much higher prices.
During a recent trip to Mhondoro, a district in Mashonaland West Province, an IRIN correspondent found many rural households severely affected by food shortages.
"Our harvests were poor and, as a result, we were depending on shops and the owners of grinding mills for maize, but after the crackdown on shops, grain is no longer available," a villager, who declined to be identified, told IRIN.
"When sugar is available, we have tea and sweet potatoes in mid-morning, and then sadza (thick maizemeal porridge, a staple dish) and vegetables grown in our gardens in the evenings," she said.
"But since maize is hard to come buy, we are now mostly surviving on maheu (a mildly alcoholic home brew made of maizemeal) and the sweet potatoes, which could run out at any time."
She said the local GMB depot was not providing them with maize because it wanted to build up reserves, and farmers who had managed to produce surpluses were not selling to the GMB because of delayed payments. Instead, they sold directly to the informal market, where cash was paid immediately, or they smuggled their harvest to neighbouring countries to sell it for a more stable currency.