Southern Africa's food crisis - from bad to worse

By Obi Anyadike

Editor-at-Large

Close to 29 million people in southern Africa are already facing food shortages as a result of this season’s poor harvest, but worse could be on the way.

“Serious concerns are mounting that Southern Africa will this coming season face another poor harvest, possibly a disastrous one,” the UN’s aid coordinating agency, OCHA, warned in a recent report

A drought-inducing El Niño – perhaps the strongest ever recorded – is already underway. Floods are expected to hit the region early next year, and there is a 65 percent chance of a cyclone slamming into the island of Madagascar.

This year, Southern Africa’s cereal harvest fell by almost a quarter, down to 34 million tonnes. Major food shortages are affecting Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Madagascar. In Lesotho and Namibia, whose populations are tiny, 30 percent of  rural people are classified as “food insecure,” which essentially means they lack access to food that’s sufficient to lead healthy, active lives.

After the previous year’s good harvest, “The crisis has been to an extent mitigated by the region’s grain reserves, but they are now largely exhausted,” OCHA humanitarian officer Yolanda Cowan told IRIN.

Their own stockpiles finished, many poor households are already having to buy their staple foods, so the current abnormally high maize prices – up between 15 and 40 percent – is causing real hardship. 

Less cash in rural areas means markets start to close. “Once traders realize the crop is lost they will pack up and go,” taking with them the lines of credit they extend to poor farmers, said Daniel Sinnathamby, regional humanitarian coordinator for Oxfam.

Governments will have to respond this coming year by importing commercial food from outside the region, but are facing tightening budgets. Many have economies dependent on commodity exports, and have felt the pinch of the global downturn in prices.

Most countries in the region boast well integrated middle-income economies, and so in theory should not need humanitarian assistance year after year. Yet “Southern Africa suffers from chronic vulnerability. Very small events can send large numbers of people into humanitarian crisis,” said Sinnathamby.

Wealth inequality is reflected in appalling rates of malnutrition-related child stunting. In Malawi and Zambia, stunting is above 47 percent – among the highest in the world. Even in economic powerhouse South Africa more than one in five children show stunting.

Despite the key role agriculture plays in people’s livelihoods, government investment has been limited. 

Farm plots are typically small, barely generating subsistence incomes. Farmers are dependent on rain-fed crops rather than irrigation; extension and development services are generally weak; and even in years of good rainfall, millions of people continue to require emergency aid.

Resilience

Southern Africa is expected to be hit hard by global warming, with extreme rainfall variability forecast. But the innovation and adaptation needed to contend with a changing climate is only slowly emerging.

“I suspect governments across the region have not made the necessary infrastructural investments,” said World Food Programme spokesman David Orr. “There needs to be greater investment in all sorts of agricultural schemes, from water harvesting to conservation farming.”

Building resilience – the ability of communities to cope with adversity - is increasingly seen as a key strategy. “What we have learnt is just responding to the immediate crisis is not effective,” said Maxwell Sibhensana, World Vision technical director.

“Every time there is a crisis we are just alleviating the impacts. There is not enough investment in recovery, and bringing people back into robust livelihoods,” said Sinnathamby.

There is a “regional resilience framework” prepared by humanitarian and development agencies, which emphasizes the need for climate-smart initiatives such as drought-resistant seeds and new farming techniques, alongside social protection programmes for the vulnerable.

Cowan believes that there is a growing realization by governments in the region that the cyclical boom-and-bust agricultural model is no longer sustainable as a path to growth and development.

World Vision has worked closely with communities on conservation farming and adaptation methods. “A lot is happening, but a lot more needs to happen in terms of climate-smart initiatives,” said Sibhensana.

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