Zimbabwe would run out of wheat by the end of February unless 240,000 mt of the grain was imported to cover this year's lower-than-expected wheat harvest, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) said in its latest report.
And NGOs and relief agencies have to step up efforts to provide relief food to the 6,7 million people in Zimbabwe whose food security is under threat, it warned.
FEWS NET researchers found that total maize imports of 748,773 mt by World Food Programme (WFP), NGOs, the private sector and the government had reduced the national food gap to about 600,000 mt.
According to official figures, a total of 1.2 million mt of maize had been available in the country since 1 April, and on average the maize available for the seven and a half months of the 2002/03 marketing year was 23 percent greater than the national requirement, estimated to be between 1 million and 1.1 million mt for the period.
FEWS NET said if the import figures were correct, then Zimbabwe would have available about 153,000 mt per month, which should have been adequate for nutritional requirements. However, food shortages on the ground did not reflect this analysis.
Reasons put forward for this discrepancy were that the distribution of available maize had been inadequate, or many households did not have money to buy maize even if it was available.
Wheat production this year had been 30 percent lower than expected and the country needed imports urgently to avoid running out by February.
Some of the country's food shortages are due to disruptions to farming under the controversial land reform programme and analysts have previously warned that wheat shortages could be exacerbated by households turning to the commodity as a substitute for maize.
Food aid distributions by WFP and NGOs had increased from 21 to 36 of the country's 57 districts. WFP had planned to reach 3 million by November, 5.5 million people in January 2003 and 5.8 million people in February. However, they were experiencing pipeline problems as some of the food pledged by the United States had not been promptly cleared by government, FEWS NET said.
If all went according to plan, 86 percent of the population identified as food insecure in the August assessment would be reached by the end of February, with total coverage by March 2003.
This would only be possible though if both WFP and the NGOs received outstanding grain imports of 216,000 mt before January. As of mid-November, WFP had only 50 percent of its required funding and was still waiting to get 98,000 mt of cereals. The current food aid stocks could only feed 3.3 million people at the full ration.
The rainy season finally began late in October and farmers had started planting, but were still constrained by limited seed availability, the report said. They took advantage of the good rains and, using the limited quantities of seed they had, planted most crops but a shortage of maize, sorghum, millet, ground nuts and pulse seed on the market limited the potential area that could have been planted.
While maize seed stocks available for the 2002/2003 production season were enough to cover "normal" national demands of 40,000 mt, they were still inadequate following the unprecedented demand set off by last's season's drought and demand for the seed was estimated to be over 50,000 mt.
Although a recent televised announcement said the government was considering importing maize seed from South Africa, this may not translate into increased maize seed sales as the government's input programs have, in the past, been too slow to reach the intended beneficiaries on time for planting, FEWS NET said.
The fertiliser shortage also continued to be of great concern.
Both the government and NGO programmes had not yet delivered the bulk of their seed support to the farmers earmarked for agricultural support, the report said.
However, while the rains started well, predictions were for normal to below normal rainfall until March 2003. As this coincided with the reproductive stages of most of the cereal crop, crop yields were expected to be depressed, researchers warned.
Food security in most rural areas was still critical as supply from the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) remained erratic and was not adequate to meet consumption requirements and, just as importantly, many poorer households had run out of cash to buy available grain.
In urban areas, inflation rates, currently estimated at 144 percent, continued to rise, increasing the cost of living for the urban poor at a rate which far exceeded their income. Price controls had not helped as affected commodities were not readily available in the formal market and were sold instead on the parallel market where shortages continued to push prices up.
One indication of the effect on urban households was that 22.4 percent of households in the capital Harare failed to pay for their water between January and October 2002, FEWS NET said.
Low-income households needed to employ all able-bodied members in some kind of informal sector activities such as vending, hawking, gold panning, brick moulding and selling firewood in order to make ends meet and some were even forced to engage in illegal activities such as robbery, prostitution and selling controlled commodities on the parallel market.
Poor urban households unable to increase their incomes were forced to reduce the number and size of meals, and sometimes to forego them entirely.