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Grim Christmas awaits millions of desperately hungry southern Africans

JOHANNESBURG - Millions of people across southern Africa are again confronted by the grim prospect of not having enough to eat during the Christmas season and beyond because the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) lacks the funding to ensure adequate food supplies.

"There will be serious health and nutritional repercussions if people have to accept a further reduction in their meagre ration," said Mike Sackett, WFP Regional Director for southern Africa. "While many of us will be sitting down with our families and friends to celebrate Christmas, millions of men, women and children face a very bleak time because we were unable to meet their basic food needs."

WFP has been steadily cutting rations to more than 2.8 million people over the last six months. Many of these beneficiaries are living with HIV/AIDS and many of them are children. Most have been surviving on half a normal ration, or less. The cutbacks follow a decline in contributions from donors who are beset by compelling demands for numerous crises.

WFP launched a US$404 million three-year appeal in October to feed people in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zambia - the core countries affected by emergency food shortages over the last two years. To date, WFP has received only 2.5 percent (about US$10 million), including a timely US$3.1 million donation from the Government of Japan.

Due to the poor donor response, the agency has been forced to take US$12 million in loans, including US$5 million from the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). These emergency loans must be repaid.

"The traditional lean season - from January to March - will be particularly tough as we will have to cut rations even further unless we receive immediate cash donations," Sackett said. "WFP will run out of food for Lesotho by the end of January and other countries in the region in the following weeks. By the beginning of March we won't have any cereals left."

WFP needs an immediate US$63 million to meet food aid needs in the five countries during the first quarter of 2005. Cash contributions are essential to enable local food purchases, which also benefit local economies. Food shipments from abroad would not arrive in time to help the most vulnerable people through the lean season.

"The press plays a significant role in donors' decisions about where to send funds. With the situation in southern Africa more complex than the average breaking news story, it's harder to convince people that the need here is as great as anywhere else," Sackett said.

"The five countries are not alone in seeking funds. Angola and Namibia are equally left off the international agenda, but children in both countries feel the same hunger pains as children everywhere, and they shouldn't be forgotten," said Sackett.

Angola's displaced and newly resettled refugees have already experienced significant food reductions. With the rainy season, many roads have become impassable, limiting local food availability. WFP still requires US$50 million to meet the country's food aid needs up to the end of next year.

In Namibia, more than 100,000 orphans and other children affected by HIV/AIDS face an uncertain future. WFP needs US$3.4 million to continue supporting these children up to next March.

"HIV/AIDS is exacting a devastating toll, particularly in small countries like Lesotho and Swaziland. But donor priorities appear to have shifted while millions suffer," Sackett said. "Without international assistance, the high HIV prevalence rates will not go down, nor will the region recover."

In Zambia, WFP still requires US$8 million to assist about 86,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola.

According to the UNDP Human Development Report 2004, 17 countries in the world had negative Human Development Index growth between 1995 and 2002. Eight of them were in southern Africa, including Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, Swaziland and Zambia. The AIDS pandemic, as well as entrenched poverty, is playing a significant role in this downward spiral.

"WFP is committed to helping the most vulnerable survive and thrive but we urgently need donations so that we can provide people with some Christmas cheer and hope of a better life in the New Year," Sackett added.

The following contributions have been made to WFP in southern Africa for the year ahead: Japan (US$3.1 million), the Netherlands (US$3.4 million), the European Union (US$2.8 million), Switzerland (US$750,000).

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency: in 2003 we gave food aid to a record 104 million people in 81 countries, including 56 million hungry children.

WFP Global School Feeding Campaign For just 19 US cents a day, you can help WFP give children in poor countries a healthy meal at school -- a gift of hope for a brighter future.

Visit our website: www.wfp.org

For more information please contact (email address: firstname.lastname@wfp.org):

Mike Huggins
WFP/Johannesburg
Tel. +27-11-517-1662
Mob. +27-832-913-750

Richard Lee
WFP/Johannesburg
Tel +27-11-517-1686
Mob. +27-83-256-5021

Brenda Barton
Deputy Director Communications
WFP/Rome
Tel. +39-06-65132602
Mob. +39-3472582217

Gregory Barrow
WFP/London
Tel. +44-20-75929292
Mob. +44-7968-008474

Christiane Berthiaume
WFP/Geneva
Tel. +41-22-9178564
Mob. +41-79-2857304

Trevor Rowe
WFP/NY
Tel. +1-212-9635196
Mob. +1-646-8241112
rowe@un.org

Jordan Dey
WFP/Washington
Tel. +1-202-6530010 ext. 1149
Mob. +1-202-4223383