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Food shortages reach critical levels

Gift Phiri

FOOD shortages are approaching critical levels in parts of Zimbabwe, raising the spectre of some voters starving to death before the parliamentary poll in March, although auth

orities are still locked in denial.

Children have been fainting in schools, pregnant women miscarrying from malnutrition and people going for days without food, reports say. Grain and cooking oil shortages prompted by severe drought, endemic poverty and the state-sponsored invasion of commercial farms by ruling party supporters are beginning to bite.

A report last week by the US-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fewsnet), a food security monitoring group, said 5,8 million of the country’s 12,5 million people will need food aid to avert starvation before the next harvest in April.

But the Zimbabwe government angrily denied the report this week charging that the statement was part of efforts by the United States to destabilise the country ahead of legislative polls by causing unnecessary alarm over food stocks.Agriculture minister Joseph Made claimed 370 000 tonnes of grain was now being distributed by the state-controlled Grain Marketing Board (GMB) to needy groups around the country and another 400 000 tonnes were being held as strategic food reserves. Some food, which he called, “carry-over stocks ordered in 2003” was also being imported.

The government insists Zimbabwe produced a bumper harvest of 2,4 million tonnes of maize last year, much of it still being held in private rural granaries by growers.The country consumes about 1,8 million tonnes of maize a year, or 5 000 tonnes a day.Independent crop estimates and World Food Programme boss James Morris have cast doubt over the government’s harvest figure, saying about one million tonnes of food was produced last year.

Made said this week the famine unit report was part of a campaign by the United States to vilify the government’s sullied agrarian reform in which about 5 000 white-owned commercial farms were violently grabbed for redistribution to blacks since 2000. Made described the programme as “a resounding success” despite a worsening shortage of farm equipment, fuel, seed and fertiliser.

“God has been smiling on us and we are lucky that in the northern parts there were some good rains in the last few days and crops are doing well,” Made was reported as saying in the official press.

The Zimbabwe Independent understands that the staple maize crop has dropped by nearly 50%. The United Nations estimates that about half a million of Zimbabwe’s 12.5 million people are already going dangerously hungry, and many of them are also angry — bad news for Mugabe who blames the shortages on drought and grain hoarding by white farmers intent on toppling him.

In the parched south, people have accused the government of “playing with our lives”.

Outside a supermarket in Mbare, a young woman with a baby on her back begs: “Please buy me some food.
Anything. I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

Around the country, irritated people stand in long queues for hours for small rations of maize, and police have had to calm unruly crowds.

Eddie Cross, economic spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said the situation was frightening.

“Food shortages are causing extreme hardship across the board and across the country. The political implications are profound. I would hate to run a campaign amidst a food crisis for which there is no solution. Also, ‘war vets’ are leaving commercial farms in droves, because their crops have failed for lack of water. Zanu PF’s fast track land reform — the heart of its programme — is collapsing. People are blaming it for their hunger.”

People are most at risk of starvation in the south, west and far north of the country, naturally arid areas where subsistence maize crops have shrivelled with the absence of rain for nearly two months, in some areas. An estimated 2,7 million people in Masvingo and Matabeleland — more than half of the population of those provinces — face extreme hardship. New figures by food industry leaders, released to the Independent, estimate a maize shortfall of 300 000 tonnes, and stocks to deplete by February and March. In 2004-2005, there is forecast to be a shortfall of more than a million tonnes.

Just three years ago, Zimbabwe was the bread basket of southern Africa, fully self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs with surpluses for export including maize, wheat and soyabeans. The country supplied 25% of the world’s flue-cured tobacco and 8% of European horticulture imports. Now it is a large net food importer, and wheat, tobacco production and horticultural output are down 25% to 30%.

Most serious is the 50% fall in maize. Because maize is in short supply, demand for bread has soared. This is rapidly depleting wheat stocks, which are expected to run out by June.

The WFP began distributing imported food relief to 40 000 people in Matabeleland North recently. It calculates that 19 of the country’s 57 districts are at risk.

“The situation could get rapidly worse,” says the WFP in its latest report.

As the economy shrinks, companies close, jobs are lost and 132,7 % inflation erodes incomes and causes food prices to rocket. Even where food is available, growing numbers of people cannot afford to eat in a country where more than a third live below the poverty line, with less than US$1 a day to meet their needs, according to the latest Human Development Report.

The embattled ruling party has promised people in its reelection campaign that nobody will starve, and that 200 000 tonnes of maize are speeding their way towards Zimbabwe from South Africa. But the food is not coming in anywhere near fast enough.

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