Poor rural households in drought-ravaged southern Zimbabwe have exhausted their food stocks and are resorting to eating wild roots in a bid to stave off hunger.
Erratic supplies by the state's Grain Marketing Board (GMB) and the lack of essential commodities in rural shops have combined to undermine food security in the semi-arid Matabeleland region, aid workers told IRIN.
In the district of Tsholotsho, in Matabeleland North province, 49-year-old widow Sharon Mpofu said she was foraging for wild roots, identified as fit for consumption by an elder of the San clan from her village, to feed her two children. The San are renowned for their survival skills.
The family had also begun to reap the rewards of a small community vegetable garden, established as part of the NGO Christian Care's irrigation and self-sufficiency programme.
"This has become our way of survival. Our maize-meal got finished last week; it is not even available in the shops. In the past few weeks it was available, although some of us would struggle to get the money, but these days it is not there," said Mpofu.
A Christian Care aid worker told IRIN they had established that over 300,000 of Tsholotsho's population of around 600,000 were food insecure.
"We have done some research in readiness for food [aid] distributions ... people are literally going for days without food and there is high risk of malnutrition. Some are now eating wild roots - the situation is very dire," the aid official warned.
Tsholotsho Tjitatjawa's village headman, Nkosilathi Sibanda, said: "Although no one has died as a direct result of hunger, people are starving - they need food. Shops are empty and families are going for days without a decent meal." He noted that supplies from the GMB were sporadic, and when maize-meal was available it was often unaffordable.
A 50 kg bag of maize-meal normally sold for Zim $80,000 (US $3), which was beyond the reach of most rural people.
"What we need at this point is assistance from [aid] organisations," Sibanda said.
Aid agencies had been waiting for authorisation from the government to begin programmes in Zimbabwe.
The World Food Programme (WFP) received written authorisation from the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare to begin food distributions to targeted vulnerable groups in 49 districts around the country on 29 September.
"Through this programme, an estimated three million food insecure people will receive a monthly ration of cereal and pulses. WFP will work with 11 NGO cooperating partners. Distributions will begin as soon as possible and continue through to April 2006," the aid agency said in its latest situation report.
An official from the GMB, who wished to remain anonymous, said although the state grain procurement agency's silos in both Matabeleland North and South regions were fast running empty, "the ministry of agriculture says there are several tonnes of maize in transit from South Africa".
"We are aware of the dire situation facing many people, and we hope food security will improve if we are to get such deliveries," the official added.
A recent report by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network and the WFP on informal cross-border food trade quoted the South African Grain Information Service as saying that by the end of August, the GMB had imported 403,000 mt from South Africa at a rate of 86,000 mt per month.
"A rate which is 28 percent below the planned monthly import of 120,000 mt per month - Zimbabwe requires a total of 1.2 million mt of maize before the next harvest," the researchers commented.
Thubalami Mkhosi, a grain miller in the Mangwe district of Matabeleland North, told IRIN: "The last time I got supplies from the GMB was in early August, but now their reserves have gone dry, there is virtually nothing in some of them [the silos]. This means that we are out of business, and that people are going hungry because there is no mealie-meal [maize-meal]."
Aid agencies have estimated that some four million people will require food aid in Zimbabwe in the months ahead.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has also warned that prospects for the 2006 agricultural season are being seriously threatened by the short supply and high costs of inputs such as seeds, fuel, and fertiliser.