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Millions threatened by drought and hunger in southern Africa

Fred Muvunyi (AFP, AP,dpa)January 19, 2016

More than 30 million people in southern Africa face hunger as El Nino reaches its peak. Helpless Malawi and Zimbabwe officials are seeking divine intervention.

Drought in Africa
Image: AP

Millions of people are facing hunger in southern Africa because of a severe drought that has been exacerbated by El Nino.

El Nino, which occurs every two to seven years, is caused by the warming of the Pacific Ocean. Scientists believe that the phenomenon has been around for thousands of years, but the droughts and floods they trigger may be becoming more intense as a result of climate change.

More than half of South Africa's 50 million people are facing hunger, and at least 11 people have died this month as a result of heat stroke.

Heat stroke results from prolonged exposure to high temperatures, usually in combination with dehydration. This leads to a failure of the body's temperature control system and can lead to death.

Large parts of the country have been experiencing a heat wave, with temperatures exceeding 40°C in some areas. The South African government is urging its people to stay out of the sun and to remain hydrated.

The country's weather service is predicting continuing dry conditions for South Africa in the coming months.

The country's chief scientist, Joel Ondego Botai, told DW that the situation remains dire, especially in the northern part of the country.

"We know that at the moment El Nino will reach its peak and therefore it will have an effect," said Ondego.

Ondego added that the El Nino phenomenon will continue for the next two or three months before South Africans can start feeling a sense of relief.

Zimbabweans turn to God

Zimbabwe is one of the many countries feeling the strain of El Nino, which has dried up rainfall across southern Africa over the last year.

The drought has been killing crops, disrupting hydropower production and pushing authorities to enforce stringent water rationing in some areas.

Earlier this year, the country's second vice president, Phelekezela Mphoko, pleaded with Zimbabweans to pray for rains.

Strigent water rationing in South Africa
El Nino weather is disrupting power production and crop growth across the regionImage: picture-alliances/dpa//K. Ludbrock

"In the face of this possible drought it is important that we turn to the Almighty God, the creator and sustainer of life, to heal our land. I therefore request that we all dedicate time in our different gatherings to pray from Saturday January 9 to Sunday January 17, 2016," said Mphoko in a statement.

The drought is threatening crops and cattle across much of Zimbabwe. International agencies are saying that up to 1.5 million Zimbabweans, especially those in the south, need food aid. Zimbabwe's total population is around 13 million.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) southern Africa coordinator, Chimimba David Phiri, told DW that people should expect harsher conditions this year than during the 1997-1998 El Nino.

"We are looking also next season when communities might be in a more weakened situation because of the drought,” Phiri told DW [sic.].

The FAO said it would provide subsidised livestock feed to small-scale farmers in four districts in Zimbabwe as hundreds of cattle have died due to the drought.

Food aid for Malawi

Malawi, like its neighbors in southern Africa, is feeling helpless in combating the drought and has also turned to God for help.

On Saturday January 10, President Peter Mutharika led Malawians in national prayers for increased rains at a ceremony held in the capital Lilongwe.

Since El Nino hit, Malawi has experienced no rain for at least three weeks, leaving people in despair and in fear of going hungry again this year. The country has only one rainy season which usually begins in November and ends in April.

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.

Drought and corn in Zimbabwe
The dry conditions mean that this year's maize harvest will be hard hitImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Joe

This situation could even become worse this year due to the weather. The current economic status of high inflation and interest rates has further reduced people's buying power.

Most people cannot afford a bag of maize, which vendors are now selling for between $15 and $18 for 50 kilograms.

In a response to the worsening crisis, these countries are seeking international assistance to help feed their people.

The United Nations has launched a record humanitarian appeal in December last year, asking for $20.1 billion to assist countries affected by the current drought.