The Heat Is Online

Weather Extremes Fuel Food Crisis in Southern Africa

"Erratic weather for the last few years, marked by alternating periods of flooding and drought, has laid the foundations for the current crisis in what are already some of the world's poorest countries."

Hunger in Southern Africa Imperils Lives of Millions

The New York Times, April 26, 2002

JOHANNESBURG, April 25 — Southern Africa's worst food shortage in a decade is spreading and more than five million people across the region may now need help, the United Nations World Food Program said today.

Already, the agency is feeding about 2.6 million people in Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and other countries in the region, and a new assessment under way suggests that millions more are falling deeper into hunger.

Not since the early 1990's, when a searing drought struck the region, has southern Africa faced such widespread food shortages, and the coming year offers little hope that the crisis will end, Judith Lewis, the World Food Program's regional director, told journalists today in Johannesburg.

This week, Lesotho, the tiny mountainous country encircled by South Africa, declared a state of famine. With much of the country's highlands accessible only by donkey, Lesotho, small as it is, will present particular difficulties.

Malawi, perhaps the hardest hit country, declared a state of disaster weeks ago. But its troubles have only worsened, with a continuing cholera outbreak that has killed hundreds of people, compounding the food shortages and straining an already overburdened health care system.

Zambia and Zimbabwe are in dire trouble, too, and Mozambique and Swaziland, while slightly better off at the moment, will be hard pressed to avoid similar shortages.

About 145,000 tons of food, worth about $69 million, is needed in the coming months, the United Nations agency said, and so far only about $3 million worth of food has been pledged.

"Much needs to be done," said Ms. Lewis, who spent 15 days touring southern Africa this month, "and we need to do it now, and we need to be preparing for what's going to be needed in the future."

What she and her staff saw as she crisscrossed the region left little doubt, she said, that many people are living at the limits.

In rural Malawi, she spoke to man who was diving repeatedly into a crocodile-filled river for waterlily bulbs for his wife and children. In the commercial capital, Blantyre, she saw children as old as 9 or 10 filling emergency-feeding centers usually reserved for acutely malnourished children under 5. In Malawi and every other country she visited, she found schools where as many as half the students were being kept home to forage for food.

"The time is running out," she said. "People are switching from what we normally call coping mechanisms, looking for nontraditional foods and trying to manage to feed their families, to survival mechanisms."

Ms. Lewis and her staff from around the region are meeting here this week to begin mapping a relief effort that will require coordination across many borders and contributions from major world capitals.

Erratic weather for the last few years, marked by alternating periods of flooding and drought, has laid the foundations for the current crisis in what are already some of the world's poorest countries.

Lacking the cash or credit to cope with the shortages, strategic grain reserves have been run down, in some cases after large quantities were sold off to other countries.

Government-imposed controls in some countries have reduced prices, often with the unwanted consequence of reducing stocks as well.

Zimbabwe's political and economic turmoil has worsened not only its own food shortages but also those of the region. Until recently, Zimababwe was one of the more stable and self-sufficient countries and neighbors often turned to it help.

Now, with triple-digit inflation, a limp currency and rising unemployment, the country cannot help itself, let alone any of its neighbors.