Zambian lives in peril as families run out of food

Published on 28 October 2005

WFP has warned that the lives of many Zambians could be in peril as the number of people needing food assistance in the country had climbed to at least 1.7 million due to crop failure and rising food prices.

Maize prices have risen by up to 60 percent from a year ago, pushing this basic cereal beyond the reach of the poorest people.

Distress sales

We need cash donations urgently to enable us to buy food in the region. This is now our only chance before the full ferocity of the lean season takes its toll

David Stevenson, WFP Zambia Country Director

At the same time, distress sales of livestock have increased significantly in the last month, with one cow now fetching half its normal worth in cash or four 90-kg sacks of maize. The price of chickens has plummeted to a third of their usual value. Most people have nothing left to sell.

In some areas, meals have been drastically reduced and there are reports of migration to urban centres in search of food.

In a normal year, people are able to rely on wild fruits and roots for sustenance between harvests. But this year, most wild foods have already been depleted and are now difficult to find.

Urgent need for cash

“The situation is deteriorating rapidly and WFP simply does not have the funding to respond to any increase in needs - we are already struggling to meet our current commitments,” said David Stevenson, WFP Zambia Country Director.

“We need cash donations urgently to enable us to buy food in the region. This is now our only chance before the full ferocity of the lean season takes its toll.”

Appeal to donors

The situation is considered so serious that the Government of Zambia yesterday launched an appeal to international donors to help scale up humanitarian relief programmes with urgent food assistance.

WFP requires US$32.8 million dollars to feed up to 1.1 million Zambians through to the next harvest in March.

Rocketing maize prices

Villages are on the brink of widespread starvation - there is no maize, wild foods are exhausted, and there’s very little food aid on the way for the next six months

David Stevenson, WFP Zambia Country Director

According to the country’s Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC) report, conducted in June, a minimum of 1.2 million people needed food assistance this year because of the country’s partial drought.

Preliminary results of a VAC revision released this week increased the total number of people in need to at least 1.7 million because of the rocketing maize prices.

Agricultural surpluses

Zambia was one of the region’s success stories, managing to recover from the drought in 2001/2002 when 3 million people needed assistance, to producing agricultural surpluses in the last two years.

WFP spent more than US$30 million on food purchases in Zambia during these years for assistance elsewhere in the region.

HIV/AIDS rates

The current crisis is further exacerbated by high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates with one in five Zambians infected by the virus.

Life expectancy has fallen to a mere 37 years while agricultural production at household level has been crippled because people are either too sick to work or families are forced to spend meagre assets on medicines and funerals rather than seeds and fertiliser.

Nightclubs

District Councillors report that young girls from the villages are increasingly being found in nightclubs, selling themselves for sex to earn cash to buy food.

Household size has also grown significantly in recent years as the virus takes its toll on family units. There are now more than 1.5 million orphans in Zambia, many of whom have been absorbed by relatives, placing an ever greater burden on limited resources.

Water levels at record lows

We have a limited amount of time to buy food in the region and get it to the hungriest before the harshest months of the lean season. The time to act is now

David Stevenson, WFP Zambia Country Director

Water levels in Southern Province are at near record lows. Families in some areas are walking up to 15 kilometres each day to collect water.

According to district officials in the province, more than 70 percent of bore holes and wells have dried up and rivers like the Kafue have dropped to their lowest level in nearly 12 years.

With the rainy season fast approaching, many people hope that there will be sufficient rainfall to plant crops and also to refill the water table.

Seeds and fertiliser

However, the scarcity of seeds and fertiliser, which are critical for the next harvest, remains one of the greatest concerns for most people across Southern Province. Most subsistence farmers cannot afford the little that is available.

The shortages of food, seeds and fertiliser have been exacerbated by fuel shortages, which have plagued Zambia for the last few months and helped push prices of all commodities much higher than usual for this time of year.

Limited time

“Villages are on the brink of widespread starvation - there is no maize, wild foods are exhausted, and there’s very little food aid on the way for the next six months unless the international community steps in now with cash to stave off a humanitarian catastrophe,” Stevenson said.

“We have a limited amount of time to buy food in the region and get it to the hungriest before the harshest months of the lean season. The time to act is now.”