Two food aid agencies on Wednesday confirmed alarming figures that almost 3.2 million Malawians face severe food shortages.
According to a joint assessment by the World Food Programme (WFP) and UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), a number of factors have contributed to the current food crisis.
The report said: "A poor harvest in 2000/02, very low levels of stocks of maize, rapidly rising food prices, a generally late start to the planting rains for the 2001/02 season, and a dry spell early in 2002, exacebated the food crisis in Malawi."
The report, based on a crop and food supply assessment mission conducted during April-May said that maize production in 2002 was estimated at 1.5 million mt, 10 percent below last year's poor harvest. The government declared a national disaster at the end of February, and requested FAO and WFP to carry out an assessment of the situation in the country.
The organisations concluded that the major cause of the poor harvest was erratic rainfall, with long dry spells during the critical months of February and March.
Poor rainfall had severely impacted on the country's cereal supply. An additional 485,000 mt of cereal is needed to feed the most vulnerable, mainly living in the rural districts. The cereal supply in 2002/03 marketing year is estimated at 1.7 million mt, while the national cereal requirement is estimated at 2.2 million mt.
Although some districts were worse off than others, the WFP and FAO report said that eventually the entire country would be affected "in some way or another" by the food crisis. The districts hardest hit by this year's poor harvest are central Lilongwe, southern Blantyre and southern Mangochi.
The organisation suggested that a "phased approach" to food aid distribution would be the most effective.
The report said: "Flooding the market with free maize would inevitably discourage farmers from growing their own [maize]."
The impact of HIV/AIDS has meant a "loss of income from a working family member", testing the rural communities coping strategies.
But while maize failed Malawians this year, the increase in production of roots and tubers is expected to blunt the acute maize shortages in some areas.
The UN Development Programme report estimates that 65 percent of Malawians live below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest countries in the world. The purchasing power of the poorest 50 percent of Malawians is extremely low with most managing on less than a dollar a day.
The vast majority of rural farmers normally depend on purchasing their maize from December until the next harvest. Due to the bad harvest last year, most farmers had to start purchasing from October/November, as their own supply of food stocks had been consumed. Such reliance on purchasing is expected to begin even earlier this year.
"Some farmers reported that whereas they normally employed others to work on their farms, this past year they themselves were seeking labour opportunities. Households and district officials reported that the majority of farmers this past year began to consume their harvest prematurely," the report said.
On a positive note, the shock from last year and the current food shortages has encouraged many farmers to engage in positive strategies for the coming season.
"These included increased planting of cassava and sweet potatoes and decreasing the amount of maize sold immediately post-harvest," the report said.
Other emergency measures, the organisations suggested, included the provision of maize seed, bean seed, fertilizer and hand hoes to assist farming households to carry out winter cultivation in wetlands and irrigation areas in May/June and for the main planting season in October/November.
WFP began its emergency operation in March to assist about 300,000 Malawians through May. Of the total recommended food aid of 207,687 mt needed until March 2003, 54,426 mt had already been delivered. The organisations appealed to international donors to increase donations to meet the remaining 153,261 mt.