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Critical window closing for 12 million in southern Africa

A top WFP official has warned that a critical window is closing fast for 12 million people across southern Africa to receive urgent help from the international community - including five million people in Malawi facing the toughest ‘hunger season’ in more than a decade.

WFP Deputy Executive Director Sheila Sisulu, a prominent South African, said in the Malawian capital of Lilongwe that WFP was racing against time to ensure sufficient food aid is delivered to six worst-affected southern African countries, including Malawi, to prevent mass suffering before next April.

"Deplorable"

“It is deplorable that enough donations only come in when images of emaciated African children starving in large numbers start appearing on television screens around the world,” said Sisulu.

“Hunger doesn’t have to be inevitable in Africa but once food needs start to peak, it will be too late for many of the weakest, especially children, and the cost of saving lives will escalate significantly.”

Massive shortfall

The world should be under no illusion, the clock is ticking and the outlook is bleak. We need money pledged now to feed the hungriest in a few months’ time.
Sheila Sisulu, WFP Deputy Executive Director
Sisulu arrived in Lilongwe on Tuesday for a four-day visit for talks with the government and to check on WFP’s operations in Malawi, just as the organisation is facing a massive shortfall in contributions to run critical feeding programmes.

“Malawi is not a repeat of Niger… yet. There is still a chance to help the most vulnerable,” Sisulu said.

“If we all act now, there is no reason why the situation should deteriorate further. But the world should be under no illusion, the clock is ticking and the outlook is bleak. We need money pledged now to feed the hungriest in a few months’ time.”

Imminent food crisis

For Malawi, WFP still needs US$76 million to feed up to 2.9 million people before the next harvest in April/May 2006. Regionally, WFP requires US$185 million to feed up to 9.2 million hungry people in Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Over the past six months, WFP and other aid agencies have warned of an imminent food crisis in Malawi and the rest of southern Africa.

So far, the biggest single donor to WFP in Malawi is the Government, which received significant support from Britain and the European Commission. However, no new contributions have been received since September 22.

Food aid on the ground

Once food needs start to peak, it will be too late for many of the weakest, especially children, and the cost of saving lives will escalate significantly.
Sheila Sisulu, WFP Deputy Executive Director
It can take up to six months for donor pledges to WFP to appear as food aid on the ground in southern Africa.

The annual hunger season in Malawi, for instance, usually starts in December and peaks in January/February before the new maize harvest in March/April, but this year it has started several months earlier and rising maize prices are already pushing vulnerable populations to the brink. Supplies of cooking oil and pulses are particularly needed.

WFP also needs to preposition three months of food supplies as some southern areas in Malawi are often completely cut off for weeks at a time once the rainy season starts in November. This makes the need for cash contributions to buy food locally even more critical.

Honouring pledges

Sisulu urged all donors “to open their hearts at this most critical time” as well as honour pledges made in the last few months. “The time to step up the humanitarian response is now, but this can’t be achieved without international support,” Sisulu said.

Spiralling maize prices in Malawi months before the hunger season point to food shortages in the first quarter of 2006 being worse than 2002, when drought put millions of people at risk of dying.

WFP fed 2.9 million people across Malawi in 2002. This year, WFP is striving to feed a similar number of people, but in just seven districts in the worst-affected south.

Voucher scheme

The time to step up the humanitarian response is now, but this can’t be achieved without international support.
Sheila Sisulu, WFP Deputy Executive Director
In addition, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and the Government of Malawi are distributing food rations through vouchers in the South, Central and Northern Regions.

The voucher scheme should eventually reach up to 2.2 million people in 16 districts. The number targeted by the scheme in October is almost 460,000 people.

WFP is currently feeding more than 1.2 million people in the south as well as providing food to malnourished children and their mothers at government-run Nutrition Rehabilitation Units across the country. It also supports people with HIV/AIDS and development projects such as irrigation schemes.

One meal or less

Hundreds of hungry people not registered for food assistance through Village Relief Committees are turning up at WFP food distribution points. Many say they are eating one meal or less per day and some are resorting to eating wild foods that have little nutritional value, and in some cases are very toxic and can cause death if not properly prepared.

The number of malnourished children under the age of five arriving in Nutrition Rehabilitation Units (NRUs) across Malawi is increasing. In August, the NRU admission rate rose by 29 percent across the country as compared to the same period in 2004.

Combination of problems

The food shortage in Malawi is caused by a combination of problems that include:

  • the poorest maize harvest since 1994
  • erratic weather
  • shortages of seeds and fertilisers at the critical planting time
  • high prices for available food
  • chronic poverty (at least 60 percent of Malawians live below the poverty line)
  • the impact of HIV/AIDS on agriculture
  • over reliance on rain-fed crops, particularly maize
  • the fact that only two percent of arable land is irrigated and most of this is linked to commercial farms for sugar cane, tobacco, and tea

HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS is a major factor in limiting people’s ability to grow food. Many families are forced to spend meagre resources on medicine or funerals for those affected by the virus, leaving nothing to buy seeds and fertiliser at the most critical planting time.

Malawi has an average adult HIV prevalence rate of 14.4%. Pockets in the country are considerably higher.

Malawi, like the rest of southern Africa, is beset by a rising number of orphans due to HIV/AIDS, placing a heavy burden on families struggling to cope with food shortages. Even after good harvests, many of the poorest families have difficulties feeding themselves.