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HIV/AIDS aggravates chronic hunger despite better harvests in Southern Africa

WFP has warned that despite better harvests across southern Africa, more than three million people will remain short of food because of chronic vulnerability caused by grinding poverty and the world’s highest rates of HIV/AIDS.

The harvest report follows a one-day conference by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) yesterday

“Unlike crises elsewhere, the humanitarian challenges caused by HIV/AIDS in southern Africa will linger on for generations
WFP Executive Director, James Morris
in Johannesburg, where representatives from 10 countries announced preliminary agricultural production levels for the 2006/7 consumption year.

Malawi recorded its best harvest in nearly five years because of better rainfall and more widespread availability of seeds and fertilisers.

“It is great news that the region will have a reprieve from the major food deficits seen over the last few years,” said WFP Executive Director, James Morris, who is also the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy.

Epic proportions

“But as long as HIV/AIDS remains at such epic proportions throughout southern Africa, a large number of people will face severe hardship unless international assistance is provided. Good harvests do not necessarily mean people have enough to eat.”

Many people in southern Africa will need humanitarian assistance for the year ahead because they were unable to grow enough food to feed themselves until the next harvest, or they are unable to buy food on the market.

Even though harvests in some countries have reached bumper levels, there are concerns that surpluses may be bought by traders in East Africa,which is facing food shortages, rather than being sold at affordable prices in southern Africa.

In addition, because southern Africa has nine of the 10 highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, many people are just too ill to work land or earn an income.

Orphans

The small amount of cash in poor HIV/AIDS-affected families is usually spent on medicines to treat their loved ones and on funerals.

More than six million people are estimated to be infected with the virus in Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The number of orphans and child-headed households is also increasingly placing a heavy burden on family structures, communities, and the state. Nearly half of all orphans due to HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, live in these seven countries.

“Food and good nutrition are crucial in battling against HIV/AIDS but it is very tough to convince the international community of the complexity and depth of the pandemic in this region, especially when people’s misery is masked by green fields and good harvests,” Morris said.

“Orphans and other vulnerable children are a particular concern for WFP as most governments can’t cope with the overwhelming number of young people who need help,” Morris added.

Lifeline

“Food assistance for these children is their lifeline. Our support to them and the other vulnerable groups must be steadfast.”

WFP needs US$85.5 million to provide food assistance to some three million people in southern Africa through to December.

By then, the number of families needing help could increase dramatically at the start of the ‘lean season,’ when they have exhausted their food stock and await harvesting of the main crop in April/May.

At times over the last five years, WFP food has reached up to 13 million people suffering from widespread food shortages caused by erratic weather, poor government policies, economic stagnation and shortages of seeds and fertilisers.

Selling off assets

During this period, many households were forced to sell assets such as chickens, goats, cattle and even their cooking pots to survive, so it can take families years to recover, unless they get assistance.

“Unlike crises elsewhere, the humanitarian challenges caused by HIV/AIDS in southern Africa will linger on for generations,” Morris said.

“Desperate hungry people should not have to compete for international assistance according to their level of deprivation. Turning away from people devastated by AIDS because of other crises should not be an option for the international community.”

Inventory

According to the SADC meeting, which brought together UN and non-governmental organisations to discuss the preliminary harvest findings, the 14-nation region recorded an overall deficit 1.65 million tons, primarily attributed to significantly lower production levels in South Africa.

In the countries that have been worst affected by food shortages since 2002, the preliminary situation shows the following:

Lesotho: This year’s grain harvest is estimated to be 24 percent higher than last year. Lesotho produced 133,000 tons of cereals, which together with carryover stocks, amounts to about 155,000 tons of available cereal compared with a domestic consumption need of 383,000 tonnes.

Vulnerability remains widespread among the country’s poorest, with very poor families renting out their land for others to cultivate, limiting their own ability to grow subsistence crops.

In most areas, the poorer households depend on food aid and their numbers could increase if market prices rise substantially in the coming months.

Malawi: A bumper harvest across the country has resulted in an estimated surplus of 250,000 tons of cereals out of a total harvest of 2.35 million tons.

However, some limited areas suffered production shortages and cash crop producer prices are generally low – meaning that many small farmers will not generate enough income to purchase supplementary food.

In addition, last year’s poor harvest eroded many household assets, as families were reduced to selling all that they owned to buy food.

Mozambique: Preliminary results of the assessment indicate that food security and nutrition in the country improved substantially, and the need for food aid should drop by as much as 30 percent among non-critically vulnerable groups.

The country produced 2.3 million tons of cereals including carryover stock compared with a national requirement of 2.6 million tons.

The assessment noted more frequent daily meals and better household diet; water and sanitation have improved, thanks to this year’s good rainfall and an increase in new and improvement of existing water holes.

Namibia: In a country that is normally vulnerable to drought, this year’s heavy rains improved overall food security - although recent flooding in Caprivi and Mariental caused waterlogging and leaching of some crops.

Inadequate farming inputs such as seeds and fertilisers and the high cost of supplies also affected crop production and disrupted livelihoods this season.

Namibia produced 108,000 tons of food, which together with carryover stocks brings cereal availability up to 184,000 tons versus a consumption need of 313,000 tons.

Swaziland:Cereal production in Swaziland declined this year compared with 2005, primarily due to poor and unevenly distributed rainfall particularly in the Lubombo Plateau and the impact of HIV/AIDS on the country’s most vulnerable population.

Production together with carryover stock totalled about 81,000 tons of cereal compared with a consumption requirement of 195,000 tons.

Zambia: The agricultural season was generally good with widespread rainfall, despite the late onset of rains in parts of the north and east.

In some low-lying areas, excessive rains adversely affected crops. Nonetheless, cereal production and carryover stock broke even with consumption needs of about 1.6 million tons.

Exacerbation

Zambia was affected by soil erosion and degradation, damage to bridges and roads which prevented people from reaching markets to purchase seeds and fertiliser.

Over the next few months, the desperate sale of agricultural produce and poor water and sanitation is likely to exacerbate the nutritional status of vulnerable people.

Zimbabwe: Preliminary VAC results for Zimbabwe were not ready for presentation at the SADC meeting, but according to information released to SADC by Zimbabwe’s Central Statistics Office, the country produced a cereal harvest of about 1.7 million tons.

However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), better rainfall contributed to maize production within the range of 1 to 1.2 million tons. In comparison, the United States Department of Agriculture in February estimated maize production of 900,000 tons.

Based on this data, FAO predicted a maize import requirement for the 2006/07 marketing year of about 300,000 tons, about a quarter of the level of the previous year.