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ZAMBIA: Aid workers deny food crisis "exaggerated"

lusaka, 20 September 2002 (IRIN) - Aid workers in Zambia have warned that the country faces a deepening food crisis, despite comments by President Levy Mwanawasa that the emergency has been exaggerated.

"As far as we know, there is a crisis in the country. I have seen people collecting wild fruits to survive and eating things that they should not be eating - and some of those fruits are running out," Mapanza Nkwilimba, World Vision's associate director for relief, told IRIN.

According to a nutritional survey by CARE International in Kazungula, in Zambia's worst-affected Southern province, global acute malnutrition in August had reached six percent, which "indicates urgent action is required".

CARE International director Brenda Cupper told IRIN that she was "deeply concerned" by the combination of food insecurity, the deterioration in people's nutritional status, and a lack of confirmed aid supplies for her distribution programmes. Individually, these indicators would not be "cause for panic", but collectively they were worrying, she said.

Mwanawasa reportedly said on Thursday that "some people" were spreading false stories about hunger in Zambia after his government banned the distribution of genetically modified (GM) food aid supplied by the United States.

"There has been a false picture being painted to the outside world that people in Zambia are dying of hunger," AFP quoted him as saying.

But aid workers told IRIN there was anecdotal evidence that the food crisis, which threatens 2.9 million people, had claimed lives. They said they were concerned the government had been "misinformed" about the true extent of the emergency.

One humanitarian official, who asked not to be named, said that in the remote southwestern town of Shangombo, the price of the staple maize meal had risen by about 30 percent, while the value of livestock was falling, indicating they were being sold off by hungry villagers. The cash received from the sale of one cow was now only enough to feed an extended family for a week.

Health centres in the area were reporting a two to three percent fall in the weight of children. While that may not seem significant, the aid official said, Zambia's traditional hunger season does not begin until around December. "What we are saying is that children are already going hungry now, and they will start to lose weight rapidly [if there is no food aid intervention]," he explained.

Mwanawasa said on Thursday Zambia's private sector would import 300,000 mt of food while the government would bring in 175,000 mt. That, he said, would leave a deficit of around 200,000 mt that he hoped would be covered by food aid.

However, the government has maintained its opposition to GM food until a scientific team touring Western capitals has reported back on whether it was safe for consumption. The ban has blocked the distribution of US-donated GM maize already in the country.

As a result, delivery plans by the World Food Programme (WFP), based on GM maize, have been complicated. "I just don't think we'll be able to source enough non-GM maize which is the food of preference for the region," WFP Regional Director Judith Lewis told IRIN. Given the uncertainty over the availability of adequate alternative supplies, acceptance of GM maize could
be "the difference between life and death".

Cupper said WFP had been unable to confirm enough non-GM supplies for CARE's October/November pipeline. "We heard that the government was going to have food, but we don't know when ... As a result, CARE is sourcing alternate food supplies locally and internationally," she added.

"I hope the government can pull it off [and meet its food import goals], all we know is the situation out there is bad. If it can relent on GM food then the situation won't be so bad," the aid worker said.

"CARE respects the right of the government to chose what commodities it gives out to Zambians. CARE also sees a strong humanitarian imperative that if GM food continues to be unacceptable, then other food should be sourced rapidly," Cupper noted.

Theme (s): Food Security,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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