Ten million in need of food aid, agencies warn

More than 10 million people will need humanitarian assistance in six countries across Southern Africa in the coming year, two UN agencies and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) have warned.

The agencies issued an urgent appeal for US $266 million in food aid to assist the region's vulnerable people.

After yet another year of poor agricultural production caused by erratic weather and late, often unaffordable inputs, such as fertiliser and seeds, several countries in the region were unable to grow enough food for domestic requirements.

"Reports compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) - following recent joint Crop and Food Supply Assessment Missions (CFSAMs) in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zambia - show that ... serious food shortages will persist until the next harvest in May 2006", the two agencies and the SADC said in a joint statement.

"The region also needs to formulate national policies on staple food prices, agricultural reform and trade at the national and regional level," the bodies added.

Collectively, the SADC states produced a cereal surplus of 2.1 million mt, compared with 1.1 million mt a year ago. "Most of the excess was produced by South Africa, which harvested a surplus of about 5.5 million mt this year," the organisations noted.

An estimated 2.8 million mt of food would have to be commercially imported in the six countries to meet the largest part of the shortfall. In addition, the international community would have to provide about 730,000 mt of food aid to support the region's most vulnerable people.

A preliminary Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC) report revealed that 2.9 million people, or 36 percent of Zimbabwe's rural population, would require food aid during the year ahead.

The number of people in need was based on the government's announced plan to import 1.2 million mt of maize to address food shortages caused by drought, inadequate access to inputs and limited tillage.

"However, if this maize is not made available through the [state's] Grain Marketing Board, or if it increases in price, the number of people requiring food assistance could rise substantially. As a contingency, WFP plans to assist up to 4 million people in Zimbabwe in the year ahead," the three organisations added.

WFP needed $266 million or 477,000 mt of victuals immediately, "so that food can either be purchased locally with cash donations, or it can be shipped to the region in time to meet the escalating needs between now and the next lean season from January to March 2006 - the period when food stocks are scarcest and people's access to cash reserves and other assets are at the lowest point," the statement warned.

"Even though Lesotho produced 15 percent more maize this year than in 2004, assessment teams suspect the country's cereal production is in a downward trend because of long-term soil erosion, erratic weather and the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It is estimated that 549,000 people will face significant food shortages from now until May 2006, and about 20,000 mt of maize will be needed to shore up the national cereal gap," the organisations pointed out.

Malawi was facing its lowest maize harvest since 1992, producing just 1.25 million mt or 37 percent of the 3.4 million mt of cereals needed for national consumption annually.

"This decline was caused by erratic weather, which has plagued Malawi, together with problems in the supply of agricultural inputs. Hopes of a good harvest this year were dashed by a prolonged dry spell at the most critical growing stage. The Malawi VAC estimates that 4.2 million people, or 34 percent of the population, will need assistance equivalent to 272,000 mt of maize over the year ahead. The number of people in need will rise if maize prices increase significantly," the statement added.

The SADC, FAO and WFP noted that much of Mozambique had experienced reasonably good cereal production in comparison to other countries in the region, but the "production disparity between the north and the south increased significantly".

"Three provinces in the north produced increases 12 percent above last year, while the harvest in the south of the country declined by 43 percent. While national cassava production improved, an estimated 70,000 mt of cereals to feed 580,000 people will still be required this year, according to the Mozambique VAC. The need will be particularly acute in the south and central provinces, where HIV/AIDS, recurrent disasters, weak health services and poverty are combining to undermine the country's food security," the three bodies emphasised.

The Swaziland VAC estimated that up to 227,000 people would be facing severe food shortages from August until the next harvest.

In Zambia a series of dry spells and early the cessation of rains, especially in the southern and western provinces, as well as constraints related to seeds and fertilisers, sharply reduced yields and cereal production.

"According the Zambia CFSAM, the late availability of seeds and fertilisers were also factors in the country's lower cereal production. As a result, Zambia needs to import 269,000 tonnes of cereals this year, compared with a surplus of 280,000 tonnes last year. The Zambia VAC estimates that 185,000 people require immediate food or cash assistance, rising to 1.2 million people by January," the statement noted.