Food shortages loom large in southern Africa

SOUTHERN Africa could face worse food shortages than last year if rains fail in the next couple of weeks, with a late season drought already threatening maize harvests, aid workers and farmers say.



dana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif”>Zambia — until recently a major source of grain for the United Nations World Food Programme — has banned exports until the extent of shortages can be assessed, while the situation in other countries also looks precarious.


“It is certainly worse than last year although it is too early to start making full forecasts,” WFP spokesman Mike Huggins said.


“We’re now into the final stages of the growing season but unless the rainfall improves then parts of the region will face widespread food shortages.”


In 2002, the effects of drought, poverty and the Aids pandemic left 16 million people hungry across the region, but aid workers say agencies and governments are now better prepared, helped by a huge expected surplus in South Africa.


“Even if we had a similar situation to 2002 we are now in better shape,” Oxfam food security co-ordinator Ann Witteveen said.


“South Africa’s huge grain stock will help keep prices low,” she added.

Crop shortages had eased in recent years, with the WFP estimating some 3,5 million people currently needing aid.


Farmers and aid workers say the next week to 10 days will be crucial if crops weakened by a drought band affecting Botswana, northern Zimbabwe and Mozambique and southern Zambia and Malawi are to stand any chance of recovery.


Selling property and livestock have helped many southern Africans stave off starvation during recent shortages, but aid workers worry many may all but have exhausted such resources in a region heavily affected by HIV/Aids.

On Tuesday, the head of Zambia’s commercial farming union said parts of the country could face a 30% or greater fall in production without imminent rain — although aid workers say it is early to say how bad things will get.

“The March rains could change the situation and allow the farmers to pull through,” said John Service, Zambia co-ordinator for food aid programme C-SAFE. “It’s too early to say.”


In neighbouring Malawi, aid workers say the situation looks worse than last year. Botswana farmers say they face the worst year on record, and drought has also hit southern Mozambique.


Aid workers are reluctant to talk about the situation in Zimbabwe, but many say poor rains and a lack of seed and fertiliser has led to widespread crop failure and a dramatic fall from last year’s crop.


Aid agencies have cut back their operations in Zimbabwe, but some South African traders say shortages may force the government to call for international help once parliamentary elections in March are out of the way.

The shortages may be rare good news for South African farmers and traders, facing good summer rains — and who had been struggling to compete with the now-banned Zambian exports.


“It might create an opportunity for us,” said one trader. South African maize prices have slumped from over R1 000 a tonne in November to under R500 a tonne now.


But finding money for food aid could be more difficult. The WFP says cash from donor countries has all but dried up in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, with the agency only having US$50 million of the $216 it says it will need in 2005. — Reuter.

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