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Food crisis worsens in Africa

Fred Muvunyi(AFP,dpa,reuters)March 15, 2016

The UN agencies and African Union experts are meeting in Zimbabwe to draw up plans to avert severe food crises in 27 African countries where millions need food aid. At least 4 million Zimbabweans urgently need assistance

Zimbabwe drought (Copyright: Reuters/P. Bulawayo)
Image: Reuters/P. Bulawayo

The number of Zimbabweans requiring food aid has risen from 3 million to 4 million as the southern African nation struggles with its worst drought in more than two decades. Public Service, Labor and Social Welfare Minister, Prisca Mupfumira, told the Herald newspaper that the authorities were speeding up grain imports to ensure that no one starves. "Indications are that the figure of vulnerable households requiring food assistance could be as high as four million people," she said.

A committee comprised of UN agencies, government officials, and NGO activists, last year concluded that 1.5 million needed food aid. They also appealed for $1.6 billion (1.5 billion euros) in aid to help pay for grain and other food. Mupfumira said government stocks of maize, the staple food, were 91,326 metric tones as of March 10 - enough to last three months but drought may stretch until next year.

The Zimbabwean official did not give details of stocks held by private millers and farmers whom the government allowed to import grain. The drought and low mineral commodity prices have also taken their toll on the economy; with Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa saying last week that Zimbabwe was "under siege". Farmers have already lost cattle and crops and fear more distress as the year progresses.

Children affected

The UN's children's agency (UNICEF) says Zimbabwe is facing its worst malnutrition rates in 15 years due partly to drought caused by the El Nino phenomenon. UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac told reporters in Geneva that 33,000 children in Zimbabwe mostly aged one to two were urgently in need of treatment for "severe acute malnutrition." Severe acute malnutrition is extreme hunger causing visible wasting and fluid retention.

Hunger in Somalia (Foto:Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP/dapd)
UNICEF says thousands of children are now malnourishedImage: AP

Boulierac said Tuesday (15.03.2016) that the number of hungry families has doubled in the last 8 months, and UNICEF was appealing for $21million in support to meet the humanitarian needs in Zimbabwe this year. "We have not seen these levels of malnutrition in more than 15 years and more needs to be done to prevent this crisis from spiraling out of control," UNICEF representative Jane Muita said in a statement. "Water scarcity is also exposing children to higher risks of diarrhea, typhoid and other waterborne diseases including cholera," Muita added.

Some families are saving dwindling stocks by skipping meals, while school children are missing classes due to hunger, according to local media reports. In addition to the effects of severe drought, Zimbabwe has suffered perennial grain shortages after land reforms under which commercial farms owned by whites were redistributed to landless blacks.

African countries in the red zone

The latest report released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says 34 countries around the world need food assistance due to droughts, flooding and ongoing conflicts. Among those countries, 27 are located in Africa. That report notes that the regions most in need of humanitarian support are eastern and southern Africa.

Zimbabwe drought (Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Ufumeli)
The UN launched a humanitarian appeal asking for $20.1 billion to avert hunger in AfricaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Ufumeli

In Southern Africa, 49 million there face hunger this year due to drought exacerbated by an El Nino weather pattern.

Food security analyst, Neema Mogha, says the El Nino induced drought is not the only cause of food shortages in many African countries.

"El Nino is of course the main contributing factor to food shortages in Zimbabwe and other countries in the Sub-Saharan region, but there are also other issues of land mismanagement and over population which contribute to land degradation," Neema told DW.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) says at least 17 percent of Malawians are affected. Prices for maize, the nation's staple crop, are already more than 60 percent above the 3-year average for this time of the year, making it increasingly difficult for many people to buy food.

The WFP says the inflation rate in the region is at 23.5 percent and its currency is on average 170 percent higher than its exchange rate against the US dollar compared to the same period last year. According to a report by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee, it is estimated that about 2.8 million people in the country are in need of food aid following last season's dry spell and floods.

Mark Caldwell contributed to this report.