The Heat Is Online

Drought Intensifies Concern About African Famine

Meager Harvests in Africa Leave Millions at the Edge of Starvation

The New York Times, June 23, 2002

DOWA, Malawi — In February, when the food ran out, Ezlina Chambukira started selling her precious possessions one by one. First, her goat. Then an old umbrella. Then two metal plates and a battered pail.

When she had nothing left, she started praying for a miracle.

For the first time in a decade, severe hunger is sweeping across southern Africa. The United Nations says that two years of erratic weather — alternating droughts and floods — coupled with mismanagement of food supplies have left seven million people in six countries at risk of starvation.

Here in this dusty village of mud huts and unraveling dreams, 14 people have already died from hunger-related illnesses in the last four months, health workers say. It is harvest time, but crops are withered and many people are eating banana roots and pumpkin leaves.

"I have nothing else to sell," said Ms. Chambukira, 36, clutching her four ragged children. "I was praying, praying for the rains. I was praying for God to give me food."

Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Lesotho have already declared national disasters, and Mozambique and Swaziland are also struggling. Four million more people are expected to need emergency aid in the next few months as this season's meager harvest runs out, the United Nations says.

The crisis reflects the continuing economic fragility of many African nations, even here in the continent's most prosperous region. Africa's leaders are increasingly demanding greater access to Western markets for their textiles and agricultural goods in the hope of strengthening nations where millions of people remain vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, government missteps and foreign charity.

Officials say there is still time to avert a famine. So far, none of the haunting images associated with famine are visible here. There are no feeding camps full of hollow-eyed people. There are no carcasses of starved animals, no villages left abandoned as the hungry scavenge elsewhere for food.

Many families have small harvests of corn, the staple that accounts for 80 percent of the Malawian diet, which will carry those people through the months ahead. The World Food Program says it needs about 300,000 metric tons of cornmeal and other foodstuffs to feed the region through September. So far, it has received roughly 30 percent of that amount from wealthy nations that are also financing critical food aid in places like Afghanistan and North Korea. Aid agencies hope that more pledges will be forthcoming as the enormity of the need in Africa becomes clear.

The affected countries are already among the poorest in the world and many people have nearly exhausted their ability to cope.

Many families have sold all of their chickens, goats and cows to raise money to buy food. Others have reduced their daily intake to one meal a day. Others have begun relying on alternative food sources with little nutritional value like wild fruits, leaves, roots and corn husks.

Without adequate food, hundreds of people have died from sicknesses like malaria and cholera that they might otherwise have survived. In February, when many households went without food for a week or more, the European Union found that the number of cases of severe malnutrition identified in local clinics here in Malawi had soared by 80 percent.

Tiyankhulanji Chiusiwa, a 20-year-old woman with worried eyes and withered breasts, has gone so long without proper meals that she has stopped producing milk for her baby. He still suckles for comfort, but he is weakening. He is 6 months old, she says, but weighs only seven pounds.

The people have given a name to the period of biting hardship. They call it the time of "gwagwagwa" — the time when "we had absolutely nothing."

"People who have seen what famine looks like are very scared right now," said Kerren Hedlund, the emergency officer for the United Nations World Food Program in Malawi. She says the warning signs here are clearly visible.

Villagers in Malawi typically go through their harvest stocks by around January, but this year some have already run out of food. Right now, the United Nations has food to feed only about a third of the people expected to need emergency assistance through September.

"All the signs indicate that a crisis is looming," Ms. Hedlund said. "Without any relief in sight we know it can only get worse." Not since the early 1990's, when a searing drought struck the region, has southern Africa faced such widespread food shortages.

That crisis was even more dire: about 19 million people needed emergency food, and livestock starved to death across the region because of lack of water and pasture. South Africa, which has been spared the current troubles, was also hit hard. International aid poured in and disaster was averted.

But over the last two years, severe drought, in between bouts of flooding, has battered the region once again. This time, the problem is complicated by the high incidence of H.I.V. infection along with the political turmoil in Zimbabwe and mismanagement Malawi.

The countries of southern Africa have the world's highest rates of H.I.V. infection, leaving millions of people vulnerable to the ravages of hunger. The sale of Malawi's entire backup supply of grain and the past year's political upheaval in Zimbabwe have exacerbated the effects of the natural disaster.

Until recently, Zimbabwe was one of the region's more stable and self-sufficient countries, and neighbors often turned to it for help during food shortages. But the government's efforts to seize land from white farmers, who own more than half the country's fertile land, have disrupted production greatly. The combination of severe drought and farm seizures has been disastrous.

Production of the corn crop in Zimbabwe plunged by nearly 70 percent this year, leaving almost half the population in need of emergency food. With triple-digit inflation, a limp currency and rising unemployment, Zimbabwe can barely help itself, let alone its neighbors.

Meanwhile, officials in Malawi have been assailed by Western diplomats, international donors and civic groups for selling off the country's 167,000-ton emergency grain reserve and failing to account for the proceeds. President Bakili Muluzi denies accusations of corruption. He says his officials were told by the International Monetary Fund to sell the grain to repay debt, a charge that fund officials deny.

But Mr. Muluzi acknowledges that he cannot explain why his officials sold off the entire reserve, when they could have sold part, given that 30 percent of the population may go hungry and there is nothing left.

"This is the question I was asking," President Muluzi said in an interview. "I didn't understand the intelligence about that." The debate is meaningless in the villages, where men and women are too busy scrabbling for food to weigh multiple causes of calamity.

The Chankhungu feeding center for malnourished infants is often full these days, which is unusual during harvest time. Inside the tiny red brick building, mothers and infants receive four bowls of porridge daily until they recover their strength. It is a stopgap solution. The women must go home to make room for other needy mothers, even though everyone knows there is little to offer at home.

"The child is getting better here," said Aliet Kaliati, 35, who cuddled her 1-year-old son. "I don't know how I am going to feed him at home."

Kenius Mkanda, a government health worker, says that about 75 percent of storerooms in the village of Kaundama are empty. The shortages have created sharp tensions between families fortunate enough to have a small harvest and those with nothing. Stealing — something that was rare in these close-knit communities of extended families — is now rampant.

The local chiefs have been gathering to try to ease tensions and to find a way to feed the hungry. In the churches, the congregations have been calling to the heavens. Everyone agrees that help must come from somewhere, but it is slow in coming.

"Last year, I had a little," said Moyas Abraham, a basket weaver, whose wife was scavenging for corn husks and peanuts. "I have nothing in my granary now." Mr. Abraham was sitting atop a heap of straw, braiding supple strands into sturdy baskets. His wife and four children rely on his earnings because their crops failed this year. But few people are buying baskets these days.

So when his children beg him for porridge, Mr. Abraham struggles for the right words. He considers telling pretty lies to ease their fears, to give them hope. Then he looks at his empty granary and tells the truth.

"I can't tell them things are going to get better," he said. "They can see for themselves. There is hunger and it is really bad."

Food shortage hits African countries

Southern region seen in need of aid

The Boston Globe, June 15, 2002

JOHANNESBURG - The World Food Program estimates that famine could afflict six Southern African countries in the next 10 months unless they receive 1 million tons of food aid.

A combination of natural and man-made disasters is threatening 13 million people in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland with starvation, the agency said this week.

In 2001, emergency aid to the six countries totaled just over 100,000 tons of food, in part because of the floods in Mozambique, Zambia, and Malawi.

The food shortage, caused in part by drought, already has claimed some lives, prompted children to leave school, forced women to prostitute themselves for handfuls of corn meal, and sparked violence.

''There is a severe crisis pending that requires an immediate response,'' said Judith Lewis, regional director for the World Food Program, an arm of the United Nations that is regarded as the global authority on food-aid issues.

One Western diplomat based in the region said, ''We don't yet see the traditional images of starvation in Africa. But that's clearly coming.''

Already people have died eating poisonous plants and animals in an effort to stem the hunger. In Malawi and Zimbabwe, vigilantes have attacked and killed neighbors accused of stealing a few ears of maize to feed their families.

The causes of the food shortage vary.

''Civil strife, conflict, migration, natural disasters, unfair trade practices, and an unfavorable economic climate have resulted particularly in Africa being faced with a real threat of famine,'' South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, said in a speech this week.

Aid specialists economists, and diplomats say a devastating combination of bad luck and bad governance is bringing the region to its knees.

In Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of Southern Africa, political chaos and economic mismanagement over the past two years led to the collapse of large-scale farming. A drought the past year further reduced the harvest.

The situation became life-threatening when the Zimbabwe government sold its grain reserves to buy fuel last year, leaving the country with no emergency food supply.

Almost half of Zimbabwe's 13 million residents are expected to need food aid to survive to the next harvest in March, the World Food Program said.

Malawi also inexplicably sold its emergency food reserve last year, at a time when the upcoming maize harvest was expected to be below normal. The government has initiated an investigation to determine what happened to the proceeds of this sale.

This year's poor harvest has sent maize prices skyrocketing. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of maize costs about what the average household earns in a day. About 3 million people, one-fourth of Malawi's population, are expected to need food aid to survive through March.

In Mozambique and Zambia, flooding followed by a year of drought cut the harvest by more than half in some areas. More than 2 million people in each country are expected to require food aid to survive to the next harvest.

Swaziland, which even in good years doesn't manage to feed its own people, will have to import even more grain than usual to avert starvation. Rainfall in many parts of this small landlocked kingdom was 75 percent below normal, the World Food Program said. In some areas, half of all farmers saw their crops completely decimated this year.

Lesotho, another country that experiences annual food shortages, saw its usually meager harvest cut by one-third because of erratic weather.

This food crisis comes at a time when all of these countries are in the grip of an AIDS pandemic and a decade-long regional economic downturn that make them particularly ill-prepared for the current emergency.

Even before the current food shortage, chronic malnutrition plagued more than half of the children in Zambia and similarly large numbers of children in neighboring countries.

In addition, layoffs in South Africa's mining sector have robbed the region of more than 200,000 well-paying jobs in the last decade. These jobs often provided the only cash income for rural subsistence-farming families in Southern Africa. When those jobs dried up, many farming families lost their only weather-independent safety net.

Dr. Nicholas Haan, a World Food Program adviser, said the food crisis could even affect South Africa and Tanzania, the only countries with bumper crops and political stability in the region. Each may be swamped with refugees if famine is not averted.

The United States, which has already delivered more than $30 million worth of grain to the region, this week pledged to supply 400,000 tons of food - enough to satisfy about one-third of the expected need. Britain, Canada, and a handful of other countries have also pledged food aid, though not enough to satisfy the remaining demand.

The food shortage is expected to become particularly acute in September or October, when farmers run out of meager reserves they still hold from the most recent harvest in March and April.

''If we do our job right, this food shortage will be addressed without any visibility,'' said an American aid official in Malawi who requested anonymity. ''If we don't, then it could be like Ethiopia.''

This story ran on page A7 of the Boston Globe on 6/15/2002.