Poor weather and bad governance
by Solveig Olafsdottir
Five-year-old Mlandela Mukorera searches for loose kernels among
discarded maize waste at the Mbare informal market in Harare,
Zimbabwe. Basic foodstuffs are hard to come by as the country
is in the grip of a drought and political upheaval has led to
a marked reduction in farm production.
More than 10 million people in southern Africa are affected
by drought and in urgent need of food aid. While lack of rain
has caused the worst harvest in memory, the problem is compounded
by sharp increases in food prices, poor governmental policies
and the breakdown of the extended family because of AIDS.
The little girl concentrates as she kneels trying to crack
open some dried fruit. This is how she and her brothers and
sisters in Zaka district in Masvingo province in the central
part of Zimbabwe spend most of their time. Instead of going
to school (there is no money for school fees), they go out
to collect the fruit, eat it and then sleep. There isn't much
else to be had - occasionally a maize-meal porridge, the staple
food of all Zimbabweans, but in a household of 26 they only
get a spoonful each a day.
The head of the family, Chanda Gwinuira, died last June,
of malaria they say, but more likely it was HIV/AIDS-related
as Zaka district is severely affected by the pandemic. He
was a polygamist - he had five wives and 23 children. The
oldest is 18, the youngest 18 months.
"Two of the wives have gone, and they left their children
behind. We are taking care of them," says Mukoti Makuwa,
40, who is the first wife and leads the family now. "It
has always been difficult for such a large family to find
means to survive, but this year is particularly bad. We planted
about two acres of maize and millet, but the plants got bent
and wilted already in January."
Origins of the disaster
A joint United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) and Food
and Agricultural Organization assessment mission revealed
that some 13 million people in the region are facing starvation
if no aid reaches them. Zimbabwe leads the way, where some
6 million people (half of the population) are estimated to
be in need of food assistance. About 3.2 million people in
Malawi are threatened and 2.3 million in Zambia. Around half
a million people in Lesotho and Mozambique need food aid,
and 230,000 in Swaziland.
Until now, most people have been able to cope with the crisis
but that will end in September this year when the poor harvest
yield will be completely depleted. The poorest and most vulnerable
- like the Gwinuira household - already resorted earlier this
year to gathering wild fruits and berries in order to survive.
The food crisis in the southern Africa region is a complex
emergency which has its origin in a range of factors that
reinforce and compound each other. "The six countries
which are worst affected have suffered two successive years
of cyclones and flooding, which has stretched the coping mechanisms
of the population to the limit. Those worst off have already
exhausted their means of survival, such as selling off livestock,
and simply have no resilience left," says Holger Leipe,
Federation disaster preparedness and response delegate in
Harare. This year's erratic rainfall patterns, which have
caused severe dry spells in some areas and even resulted in
drought in others, have further exacerbated and compromised
The political and economic elements which have intensified
the disaster cannot be overlooked. Judith Lewis, the WFP's
regional director, points to political instability, failing
governments and war as contributing factors to the crisis.
Despite the drought, Botswana and South Africa remain unaffected.
South Africa even produced a grain surplus.
Once the breadbasket of southern Africa, grain production
in Zimbabwe is 57 per cent below last year's bad harvest and
there has been a serious drop in food production during the
two years of the governmental policy of land reform - a policy
that has seen the collapse of the commercial agriculture sector.
In Malawi, the price of maize meal has skyrocketed by 400
per cent after the government decided to sell the country's
grain reserve. Poor families could not afford to buy maize
in the local market while waiting for the next harvest, and
therefore resorted to eating the green maize off the stalk
before it was ripe, which has resulted in even less crops.
A similar story can be told in Zambia and the other three
The high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, with
some 25 per cent of the productive population infected (the
highest infection rate in the world), has also had a significant
impact on the food insecurity in the region. The HIV/AIDS
pandemic has been the major contributor to increasing poverty
in southern Africa, as it has most affected those aged 15-49.
This has, among other things, resulted in less agricultural
output as breadwinners fall sick, adults have to take care
of HIV/AIDS patients at home and cannot work, and families
take on orphans who have lost their parents to the virus.
"This situation creates a vicious
circle because when the vulnerability of the population increases,
the rate of HIV infections goes up. Poor nutritional status
means less resistance to the virus, and those infected are
more susceptible to other diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria
and water-borne diseases," says Elizabeth Chinyangarara,
the Zimbabwe Red Cross provincial programme officer in Masvingo.
"Then children drop out of school, and miss out on prevention
Making matters worse, hunger and desperation lead to desperate
actions - women and children start selling sex for food, prostitution
increases and the infection rates soar.
Red Cross action
The Red Cross in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe is providing
assistance to HIV/AIDS-affected families and orphans, recognizing
the dire need of those most vulnerable to food insecurity
in the region. Special health initiatives are under way to
tackle diseases which are deadly companions to malnutrition
including malaria, diarrhoea and HIV/AIDS. Water and sanitation
programmes, a traditional strength of the Red Cross across
the region, have been expanded.
In addition, the Red Cross societies in the worst-affected
countries are distributing emergency food aid. The Zambia
Red Cross is carrying out food distribution in ten districts
in partnership with WFP, and the Malawi Red Cross has committed
to distribute food aid as a partner of United States Agency
for International Development and WFP. Zimbabwe Red Cross
is seriously stepping up its food aid in its HIV/AIDS home-based
care programme, aiming to feed some 100,000 people infected
and affected by the virus.
The future looks bleak for the Gwinuira household. The children
are sick from malnutrition and dysentery, and the women are
not well. There is more than 7.5 kilometres to the next health
clinic, 2.5 kilometres to the water point, and they have no
"We do not know how we can survive until next year's
harvest," says Mukoti Makuwa. In fact they do not even
know where to get seeds to even begin to think about preparing
for the next planting season. The last goat they had was killed
for the husband's funeral.
The story of this family in Zimbabwe illustrates the plight
of tens of thousands of families throughout the southern Africa
region. This is a crisis of enormous dimensions. People are
dying. If not yet from starvation, then from hunger-related
diseases. Millions more are at risk. The international community
needs to respond first by sending emergency aid and second
by supporting efforts to tackle the social, political and
economic problems that have aggravated this tragedy.
Solveig Olafsdottir is Federation regional information delegate
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