Southern Africa's poorest go hungry as WFP runs short of funds

Published on 31 August 2005

Soaring maize prices in several southern African countries are causing WFP serious concern as it struggles to provide food to the most needy people while faced with a huge funding shortfall.

Soaring maize prices in several southern African countries are causing WFP serious concern as it struggles to provide food to the most needy people while faced with a huge funding shortfall.

“The fact that prices are already rising dramatically months ahead of the lean season means that many people we assumed would be able to fend for themselves will need food aid earlier,” said Mike Sackett, WFP Regional Director for Southern Africa.

WFP now plans to provide food for at least 8.5 million people by the start of the lean season in December. But due to an immediate funding shortfall of US$187 million for feeding programmes in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, only a fraction of those who require assistance will receive it.

“It can take up to four months to move food to the region, so donations are needed urgently if we are to reach the neediest before the beginning of the lean season,” Sackett said.

“We need food and cash now. Many people who have already eaten their food reserves are surviving on wild foods and relying on other desperate coping strategies.”

Lean season

Prices usually rise during the lean season – from December to the March/April harvest – when maize is scarcest on the market and people have consumed their own reserves.

The situation in southern Africa is considered so serious that in early August, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote to 27 Heads of State, the European Commission and the African Development Bank to raise the alarm for urgent funding to “avert a catastrophe”.

Worst harvest in a decade

This year’s harvest in Malawi – one of the hardest hit countries in the region – was the worst in over a decade. Little more than half of the 2.2 million metric tons of maize needed for national consumption was produced.

This shortfall was compounded by significant production shortfalls over the last three years caused by erratic weather, the impact of HIV/AIDS on the chronically poor and a scarcity of fertiliser – leading to exorbitant prices.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network in Malawi says the average price of maize across 15 markets in southern Malawi rose by nearly 50 percent between April and July, with one market recording a sharp hike of 71 percent. In central Malawi, maize prices rose by an average of 21 percent during the same period. Central and southern Malawi have been hardest hit by food shortages.

WFP had planned to feed 1.6 million of the most vulnerable people at the height of the lean season in Malawi. However, because many already cannot afford maize, WFP now plans to assist two million people. The agency will offer increased assistance if necessary, upon government request.

Prolonged dry spell

Maize prices in Mozambique are mounting rapidly across the country; compared with last year, they were 30 percent higher in July in Xai Xai, and in Chokwe, they are nearly 40 percent higher.

Southern Mozambique harvested 43 percent less cereals this year due to the prolonged dry spell during the growing season. The outlook for the next harvest is also bleak, with water levels in all southern rivers at their lowest in two years – at about 28 percent of capacity.

Lack of funding

WFP has only been able to provide food assistance to about 35 percent of vulnerable people in southern Zambia because of a lack of funding. There are also numerous reports of price increases in food-deficit areas. People are already resorting to eating wild fruits because of maize shortages.

In Zimbabwe, prices of basic commodities are also increasing in most districts and urban centres, placing maize, sugar, vegetable oil and other basic commodities beyond the reach of the most vulnerable households.

The price of maize in Masvingo has risen by 50 percent over the last two weeks, and in many rural areas maize grain is not available, with the exception of areas of Mashonaland. In Harare and Bulawayo, prices remain consistent but high. WFP plans to try to expand its feeding programmes by about three million people.

Warning signs

“The warning signs are already very clear. Massive international assistance is needed but we simply cannot respond in time unless we get immediate donations,” Sackett said.

“By raising the alarm now we are hoping that the international community will help us to reach millions of the hungry - before they become the continent’s next group of starving.”