The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) has cautioned in a new report that Southern Africa may not be adequately prepared for the upcoming planting season, while widespread food shortages batter the region.
With the World Food Programme (WFP) currently needing US $185 million to feed up to 9.2 million hungry people - in Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe - a bumper harvest is required next year if the region is to recover.
FEWS NET explained that "three out of the last four seasons have seen below normal rainfall in southern portions of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi" - a major factor in agricultural production shortfalls in the region.
"However, despite the slight optimism from the Southern Africa Climatic Outlook Forum (SARCOF) for a normal to above-normal rainfall season in 2005/06, the availability of inputs is of great concern," FEWS NET warned.
Countries most affected by the current food crisis were also those at greatest disadvantage as preparations for the planting season began in mid-October.
In Zimbabwe "maize seed, fertilisers, fuel and spare parts are all in serious short supply".
"No more than 26,000 mt of maize seed are available to meet a requirement of 56,000 mt. Even the existing limited supply of maize seed is not being released on the market - with only a month to go before the rains - as the government and seed companies have yet to agree on prices. With virtually no fertiliser available in a country that used to use 450,000 mt annually, and fuel in extremely short supply, Zimbabwe's preparedness for the 2005/06 cropping season is probably the worst ever," FEWS NET cautioned.
In Malawi, where the number of people in need of aid has risen to five million, "official figures on fertiliser imports are not yet available, although the government continues to assure the farm sector that supplies of all inputs will be adequate".
But with soils in Malawi exhausted of nutrients, fertilisers were crucial to increasing production. However, "government plans to subsidise fertilisers for poor households remain problematic, as many of the poor cannot afford even the subsidised prices, while others might sell the subsidised fertiliser to better-off farmers to pay off debts, or for immediate food needs", the FEWSNET report noted.
The UN Flash Appeal for Malawi included a Food and Agriculture Organisation programme to grant free fertilisers and seeds to two million farmers, "but due to limited response, and transportation and distribution lead times, it is unlikely that this programme will assure inputs in time for this planting season", the report said.
While there was sufficient seed and fertiliser in Zambia, only about 30 percent of farming households could afford seed and only 20 percent had acquired fertiliser.
"High costs of the inputs and transport difficulties are the reasons generally cited for these problems. With the season in northern Zambia about to begin, there is an urgent need to accelerate seed and fertiliser availability," FEWS NET said.
No major obstacles were evident in Mozambique, where land preparation had begun. "In drought-prone areas, seed and input trade fairs are underway, and these have worked well in southern Mozambique, in the past, to channel critical inputs to areas hit by periodic drought," the report explained.