Desperation setting in

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has warned that "quiet desperation" was setting in in parts of Malawi, where villagers have resorted to eating grass in a bid to stave off hunger.

The lowland area of Zomba was one of the worst-affected regions, mainly because cyclical floods have wiped out crops traditionally used as reserves during times of drought, CRS said in its latest statement on the food security situation in the country.

"We are seeing signs in the villages of quiet desperation," Debra Lynne Edwards, CRS country representative in Malawi, was quoted as a saying.

People who have depleted what little they had in the way of food reserves, have resorted to eating unripened maize or grass. "Both of these coping mechanisms can cause diarrhoea and other health problems, and can lead to malnutrition, especially for children, the elderly and those who are weak from HIV/AIDS," Edwards said.

In response, CRS has stepped up its emergency food aid in Malawi. Beginning on Tuesday this week, CRS conducted a general distribution of maize, corn soya blend and beans to 510 households (about 2,500 people) in about 20 villages in the district of Zomba.

"The amount of food aid to be distributed this month has increased to 1,624 mt, from 673 mt in August, based on the increased need," CRS said.

About three million Malawians are in need of food aid due to several years of poor harvests as a result of a cycle of drought, erratic rainfall and floods.

"Coupled with a high rate of population growth (3.3 percent), deforestation and soil degradation, this leaves Malawi currently facing its worst hunger crisis in 50 years," CRS said.

In addition to the general food distributions to targeted villages, CRS was conducting nutritional surveys to identify villages with severely malnourished children, and was providing them with supplementary feeding.

"CRS is also addressing the underlying factors that have contributed to this crisis through an agricultural rehabilitation project that will focus on crop diversification, strengthening seed systems, and drought mitigation. These emergency response programmes are being carried out in harmony with existing development and HIV/AIDS programming in the country," the agency noted.

Malawi is one of six countries in Southern Africa currently facing a food security crisis, along with Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. About 1.2 million mt of food aid is required throughout the region until March 2003 to avert famine.