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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 their situation.

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 countries.


HIV/AIDS factor

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 programmes."

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 toilet facilities.

"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
Solveig Olafsdottir is Federation regional information delegate in Harare.

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