ZIMBABWE is facing one of its worst humanitarian crises in a decade with close to eight million people — half the country’s population — facing hunger.
According to a recent report by the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on the right to food, Zimbabwe is hurtling towards “man-made starvation”. UN agencies like the World Food Programme (WFP) have scaled up drought assistance programmes to cater for the lean season (January to April). The UN agency is now appealing for US$200 million to provide food around the country as hunger stalks the most vulnerable communities. Zimbabwe Independent reporter Nyasha Chingono (NC) met WFP deputy country director Niels Balzar (NB) to discuss the agency’s humanitarian interventions. Below are excerpts of the interview:
NC: How dire is the drought situation in Zimbabwe and is it likely to worsen?
NB: Let me start by saying that as the World Food Programme, we are very worried about the situation on the ground. As you probably know, the latest
assessments that were done in 2019 show that almost half of the population, eight million people, are in need of some form of assistance during the peak of the lean season. The peak of the lean season, as you may be aware, is essentially the time between January, all the way up to April when the next harvest is coming. So this is the period when most people have run out of food and hunger is at its peak. And so obviously, in this year’s lean season, what we are responding to now is the outcome or the impact of a not very good harvest from 2018 and 2019.
Some did not harvest at all during the last harvest, some half-harvested, but at a suppressed scale. That is why we had already started our assistance in August last year to help those communities who had not harvested or had a very limited harvest. And as you may imagine, as we move through the season, more and more people are facing food insecurity. So we are gradually scaling up out of the eight million people that are food insecure. While originally the plan was to reach about two million right, with these new numbers we have now decided in coordination with the government to reach up to 4,1 million people during the peak of the lean season.
NC: How much funding do you require to provide food in Zimbabwe’s worst affected areas?
NB: We urgently need about US$200 million to provide this assistance for the peak of the lean season. But we already know now that given, as you just mentioned in the introduction, that we are most likely looking at another at least partially failed agricultural season. As such, we are likely to extend our support all the way into April and May, and most likely also start our assistance earlier than usual. That means as early again as August. I guess it is no secret Zimbabwe is obviously undergoing some economic reforms and those economic reforms are necessary. The economic reforms are necessary because I think sustainable food security is dependent on a functional economy that is growing. Having said this, I think the austerity economic reforms have had an immediate detrimental impact on the food security of many Zimbabweans. So it is a combination of climate change, as well as the economic crisis that we have at hand. And I would say given that context, it is fundamental for us to immediately, as soon as possible, receive this additional funding so that we can support people at commensurate scale.
NC: Which parts of the country are worst affected by drought and what is the WFP doing to help these communities?
NB: At the moment what we are seeing is we have food insecurity throughout. The country’s districts are affected at different levels obviously, but we know that we have some more chronically food insecure areas. If you look at the map, it is most parts of the southern belt. However, there are also pockets up in the north we are supporting almost every year.
Our focus is on the most vulnerable. Our work is mainly focussing on people, communities, wards that are facing severe food insecurity. I think with the prospect of a not-so-good harvest and knowing that the economic crisis will not go away tomorrow, we really have to make sure we bolster safety nets and social protection systems in support of the government. I think we should do this differently as we have done it in the past. We know where these people are, they are chronically vulnerable. We can take a different approach by using what we call lean season assistance, that is our cash transfers, in a smarter manner very much in the context of looking at bringing together a lot more closely working on the humanitarian development nexus. So with our humanitarian assistance, we don’t just want to protect people development gains, but we use this increasingly as a platform to proactively generate resilience outcomes as well. So while we gather people at food distribution points, we provide additional assistance in subsidised seed and fertilisers and nutrition training.
NC: In her preliminary report, UN special rapporteur on the right to food Hilal Elver said Zimbabwe was on the brink of man-made starvation. Are we likely to see the WFP scaling up humanitarian assistance in 2020?
NB: Many generous donors have come forward to provide assistance to us. But as you know, the context changes quite rapidly in Zimbabwe, so we have updated the response plan again, and we are looking at a humanitarian response plan now which is more inclusive, to look at a broader set of sectors that include agriculture, but obviously food security is in there as well. That is currently under preparation and we are looking forward to having this launch towards the end of the month.
Again, many generous donors have come forward but, given that the numbers have increased exponentially, we are in desperate need, frankly, to receive as soon as possible, pretty much immediately additional pledges so that we can go and procure. Given that the previous harvest has not been good based on the drought that we have had in Zimbabwe which is also affecting the entire region, we are seeing that commodity stocks in the region are very low. So whereas in normal years we would go out and procure commodities from neighbouring Zambia or South Africa, we have a hard time. As you know, Zambia is looking at two million people in food insecurity and many other countries have a challenge in the region as well, so it means you have to go beyond the region and procure commodities as far as Mexico and Ukraine. The challenge with that is obviously if you procure something in South Africa, it is a matter of a couple of weeks to get it in. If you do this in Mexico, it has a lead time of up to about three months, meaning three months from the pledge that we received from the donor until a plate of food is on a family’s table.
NC: The UN special rapporteur also noted with concern poor levels of nutrition for children due to the drought. What is the WFP doing to help families with malnourished children around the country?
NB: Malnutrition is a key piece. There are several UN agencies and NGO partners and of course the government that have a mandate in working on malnutrition. What we have seen from 2018 to 2019 is that global acute malnutrition rates have gone up from about 2,4 to 3,6%. That is still comparatively low, but we are now working with other partners including UNICEF, to scale up our assessments and measurements so that we can actually see where these rates are going.
We have smaller separate, specific nutrition programmes for maternity waiting homes where we provide nutritious diets to would be mothers. So we provide assistance to households with children under five and provide food or cash. We also provide the Super Cereal Plus, that is a highly fortified corn soy blend. So we hope we are able to continue to provide this to keep the malnutrition rates at bay.
NC: About 2,2 million people in urban areas are said to be food insecure, according to your latest reports. How dire is the situation in urban areas in light of unrelenting economic challenges?
NB: What we have seen over the past couple of years and increasingly I would say over the last two years that food insecurity is into urban areas as well. Traditionally, it’s more of a rural phenomenon, but as I said, increasingly also in urban areas. So of about 7,7 million people that need assistance just about 5,5 million are in rural areas, while 2,2 million are in urban areas.
So based on that, we started a pilot intervention in Epworth that was a year ago and we are reaching 20 000 people as we speak. And we are scaling this up to reach 100 000 people as of as of January, not just in Harare, but there are other we call domains or urban areas including Bulawayo. So I think it’s in total about eight different locations that we are providing assistance to, and a couple points of this, which I think are important.
NC: Hunger is viewed by security experts as a major driver for social unrest and instability. Do you share the same sentiments?
NB: I think what we have seen in other contexts outside Zimbabwe is that hunger can be a driver of unrest. We saw this between 2007 and 2008 where there was a spike globally, because of limited commodities on the market. We saw prices of basic food commodities go through the roof and I know in West Africa and East Africa this led to riots when the prices of bread or your basic commodities went up.