UN warns of African food crisis

Posted: 29 August 2002

Author Info: Source: Food supply situation and crop prospects in Sub-Saharan Africa (FAO) .

A call for urgent help to meet the food crisis in Southern Africa was made by the United Nations at the World Summit in Johannesburg. But, says Friends of the Earth, more fundamental action is needed to deal with the underlying causes of the problem.

The call for help came in a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which says that the number of people in need of emergency food aid in Southern Africa is close to 13 million.

It warns that only 24 per cent of the US$507.3 million needed to provide food assistance to more than 10 million people until the next main harvest in April 2003 has been pledged.

Assistance is also urgently needed to provide agricultural inputs to help farmers recover from the crisis. Against FAO's estimated requirements of US$25 million in mid-August, pledges covered only 26 per cent of the amount needed.

Grave concern

FAO's tri-annual report on the food situation in Sub-Saharan Africa, lists 21 countries in the region as facing "food emergencies". The causes include civil strife, drought, excessive rain, flooding and population displacement.

"The food situation in southern Africa is of grave concern," the report says. "A prolonged dry spell during the 2001/02 growing season, and excessive precipitation in parts, devastated crops in large growing areas. In Zimbabwe, reduced planting in the large-scale commercial sector due to land reform activities compounded the problem.

"Maize production in the sub-region fell sharply, reaching less than one-quarter of last year's level in Zimbabwe, one-third in Lesotho and just over a half in Malawi, Zambia and Swaziland."

Zimbabwe's need

In Zimbabwe, the report warns, "the food and nutritional situation gives cause for serious concern following two consecutive sharply reduced cereal harvests and the country's prevailing economic crisis."

The report says there are shortages of the main staple, maize, particularly in rural areas. Overall, high levels of inflation continue to erode access of poor households to food and non-food items. The outlook for the crop and livestock production 2002/03 is said to be "bleak due to disruption of farming activities in the large-scale commercial sector."

More than half the country's population is reported in need of food aid and FAO calls for "additional donor contributions" to stem the deterioration of the food situation. Assistance with agricultural inputs is also "urgently required to enable drought-affected farming families to restart agricultural production during the next main planting season starting October 2002."

Starvation fears

Malawi has also been hard hit by the food crisis with instances of starvation reported in parts of the country earlier this year. The report estimates that some 3.2 million people have been seriously hurt by the combined effects of reduced food availability and food access. Distribution of relief food has begun to about 500,000 people. That number will rise to 3.2 million by December. So far, the report says, food aid requirements have been well resourced by donor contributions.

In a separate report on the food crisis in Suthern Africa, Friends of the Earth said the impending humanitarian disaster is not simply a result of the weather. The impacts of food shortages will be exacerbated by the situation onthe ground.

In several parts of the area, more than 30 per cent of people aged 15-49 are infected with HIV/ AIDS. This increases their vulnerabilityto disease and reduces their ability to produce food. Land conflicts have undermined food production in Zimbabwe while civil war has wreaked havoc in Angola.

Furthermore, local incomes in rural areas in the region have fallen as a result of market liberalisation forced on governments by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and World Trade Organisation, it claims. Meanwhile programmes set up by local governments to protect their peoples from faminehave been cut back.

Climate change

Climate change is another element in the situation, FOE says. It quotes scientits as saying that, if current trends continue, average global temperatures could rise by up to 6C by 2100. Man-made emissions, particularly ofcarbon dioxide due to the burning of fossil fuels, are largely to blame. Rising temperatures have knock-on effects on sea-levels and weatherpatterns.

Across Africa, the average number of people affected by coastal flooding could rise from one million in 1990 to, at worst, 70 million in2080. However, within Southern Africa, this problem is most likely to affect communities in Mozambique.

A more worrying problem is that rainfall may become more episodic - with, in places, both an increased likelihood of drought and more intense storms.

Agriculture is one of the economic sectors thought to be most at risk, says the report."One-third of the national income in Africa is generated by agriculture". On average, 70 per cent of the population are farmers and 40 per cent of all exports are agricultural products.

Friends of the Earth warns that the impending famine in Southern Africa may only be the first of many over coming decades. And that is all the more reason why the World Summit should take action now on climate change.

The 21 countries facing food emergencies are: Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.