Southern Africa still requires substantial aid for at least 6.2 million people, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and Food Agricultural Organisation (FAO) warned on Thursday.
This was despite increased agricultural output, with the region having produced about two-thirds of its basic food requirements this year.
Last year aid agencies estimated that more than 15 million people required food aid due to a combination of factors, most notably drought and the impact of HIV/AIDS on food production.
At a press conference in Johannesburg on Thursday, WFP and FAO said that while the situation in most countries had improved, Zimbabwe's food production was worse than last year's and regional disparities in food production had created pockets of need.
The latest crop and food supply assessments in Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia found that the general food security situation [was] improving, a joint FAO/WFP statement said.
It noted, however, that food production was uneven, with Zimbabwe producing barely enough to meet 30 percent of its needs.
The region continues to need food assistance in all six countries affected by this [the food shortages] ... we are still in a crisis, said WFP regional representative Judith Lewis.
The region's agricultural sector was still very dependent on rain; there were also major macro-economic issues and policy constraints hampering efforts to get food to everyone needing it in Southern Africa.
ZIMBABWE FACES ACUTE SHORTAGES
This was evident in the situation faced by Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe faces acute food shortages, with some 5.5 million people in need of food aid. Food production in Zimbabwe has fallen by more than 50 percent, measured against a five-year average, due mostly to the current social, economic and political situation and the effects of drought, the FAO/WFP statement noted.
These conditions were compounded by the marked reduction of the large-scale farm sector [a consequence of the ongoing land reform programme], which produced only about one-tenth of their 1990s output.
As a result, about half of the regional food deficit of 2.2 million mt is in Zimbabwe. The shortfall means that Zimbabwe will need to import almost 1.3 million mt of food, either commercially or through food aid, to meet the minimum food needs of its people, the agencies explained.
FAO official Graham Farmer said there was a deficit of hybrid maize seed in Zimbabwe. This could partly be made up by additional seed production in South Africa, and maybe Malawi and Zambia as well. He stressed that it was critical to get seed to farmers in Zimbabwe.
IMPACT OF HIV/AIDS
The impact of HIV/AIDS in the region had exacerbated the food security crisis. We have 4 million orphans in this region and we have noticed an escalation of child-headed households and households headed by grandparents, usually a single grandparent, Lewis noted.
The most productive segment of the population is dying ... people between the ages of 15 and 49, Lewis added. Women, because of their role as primary providers in the majority of
households, were doubly affected by the disease.
HIV/AIDS infection rates in Southern Africa are the highest in the world, making those infected all the more vulnerable to health complications and death when food shortages occur, and affecting the lives and livelihoods of communities as a whole, the FAO/WFP statement added.
Lewis noted that while the needs for food aid were consistently lower than last year [in the six countries] ... Zimbabwe and Mozambique still have large numbers of people that are going to need general food distributions and non-food items such as water and health services.
The FAO's Henri Josserand said the big difference from last year is that some countries have done well - Zambia and Malawi and even Mozambique, have all produced quite a lot of food.
But production at the national level does not mean that everyone will have adequate access to food. In Mozambique, production is higher than the five-year average - the northern part of the country has a lot of food. They don't know what to do with it. However, in southern Mozambique they are facing a major crisis. For Mozambique, this is the third year of food
shortages because of drought and floods, he added.
The FAO/WFP joint assessment had found that in Mozambique, food production surged in the north of the country, but parts of the south and central region continue to face serious food shortages, affecting 949,000 people in 40 districts.
The reason for the regional disparities within Mozambique was simply that Mozambique is very large, and the transport infrastructure is very weak [following 20 years of civil war], so it is extremely expensive to move large quantities of food to the south, Josserand explained.
Meanwhile, Malawi's crop production had improved significantly since the widespread food shortages in 2002. This year it managed to produce, or has in reserve, about 2.3 million mt of cereals, leaving a national shortfall of 90,000 mt, WFP and FAO found.
In Zambia, cereal production was estimated at 1.16 million mt, about double the output of 2002. Cereal production in the region increased from 5.4 million mt in 2001/02
to 6.4 million mt this year. But some areas in Swaziland and Lesotho continued to face shortages, the agencies noted.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) deputy executive secretary, Albert Muchunga, said it was forecast that 6.2 million people would require food aid in 2003/04 - a significant decrease from the more than 15 million people aid agencies said needed food aid to survive at the height of the past year's food security crisis.
However, Lewis pointed out that needs grow between harvests and the figure of 6.2 million could grow to 7, 8 or 9 million.
Lewis also stressed the need for donors and governments to assist with delivering agricultural inputs for the coming cropping season as quickly as possible.
Yes, we made a Herculean effort [in responding to the crisis last year], however, there's still much, much work to be done in the next year. We have to continue our relief efforts and [at the same time] integrate longer-term [developmental] needs, Lewis noted.
AVOIDING CHRONIC FOOD SHORTAGES
The agencies observed that for the region to resume agricultural growth, increased and carefully targeted support will be needed for the agriculture sectors of the six countries.
Josserand explained that this year's production increases were a partial recovery.
The gains made this year in food production are limited and very fragile - we are very concerned about next year as well. This year there was rain [and the FAO], along with SADC, has made efforts to give inputs to farmers. We are very concerned because the agricultural sectors are weak. Even if we have good rains [over the next cropping season], we have
to work very hard to make sure we have enough food to feed people, Josserand added.
Lewis noted that the Consolidated Appeal for Southern Africa would be launched in July. This would outline strategies and interventions planned by agencies to meet the need in the region.
With regard to preventing food shortages from becoming chronic throughout the region, Lewis said it was clear that this region does not want to be dependent on foreign assistance.
The challenge that lay ahead was integrating emergency relief programming with longer-term developmental goals: We're in transition, we're [focussing] not just on relief, she said.
That we've been able to avert a major crisis gives us a lot of hope. But there's still millions who need help, Lewis concluded.
IMMEDIATE ACTION NEEDED
Josserand highlighted continued concern over future harvest prospects.
We need to act quickly for the next planting season, which starts in September. If we are to get seeds to farmers in time, we have to act now! We have to get the money to buy the seeds, to transport them and distribute them to the people who need them. Otherwise all the gains of the past year will be reversed, he warned.
He described the current gains in production as a temporary respite. Josserand also noted the impact of the crisis on chronic poverty.
It works in two ways: when the [agricultural] market is very depressed, people have produced little [in terms of crops to sell], so they have little money [to buy essentials]; secondly, chronic poverty is a reason for poor production, because poor people do not have access to inputs [like fertiliser], he said.
Providing people with agricultural inputs was the number one concern of the FAO at the moment.
(Source: Integrated Regional Information Network, 12 June 2003)