Southern Africa Faces New Food Shortages

Southern Africa its second food crisis since 2002 due to poor rains combined with the impact of AIDS. The United Nations is aiming to feed 8.5 million people across the region until the next harvest in April, but for many families, the worst hardships are yet to come.

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Millions of people in southern Africa could go hungry in the coming months unless additional food donations arrive soon. Poor rains this year devastated crops in six countries across southern Africa. The UN estimates 8.5 million people in the region will need food aid between now and the next corn harvest in April of 2006. NPR's Jason Beaubien has the story.

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

It's the dry season in southern Africa right now. From the air, beige riverbeds cut across the brittle, brown landscape. This part of the continent is always parched as winter draws to a close in the Southern Hemisphere. The problem this year is that the dry season came early and wiped out crops before villagers could harvest them. Some parts of southern Africa haven't seen rain in eight months.

In Malawi, Joyce Jackson(ph) is sitting outside her simple mud hut breast-feeding her one-year-old daughter. The dimly lit hut has dirt floors, no electricity or running water, but the exterior walls are painted a cheerful bright yellow. Like most rural Malawians, Jackson depends on subsistence agriculture to survive. This year, she says, her cornstalks withered just before the crop was ready.

Ms. JOYCE JACKSON: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: `Usually, we get five sacks of maize from our land,' she says. `This year, we only got half a bag of maize.'

Jackson says her half a bag of corn ran out months ago. Now her family eats just one meal a day.

Ms. JACKSON: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: `Each day I take the money my husband earns, and I go to the market to buy cassava,' she says. `By 11:00, I've prepared the meal. That's it until we go to sleep. Tomorrow, I'll do the same again.'

And Jackson is one of the lucky ones. She's healthy. Her husband is able to earn a few dollars a day doing casual labor, so they can afford to buy food. Cassava, however, isn't always available, and she's worried that as more people run out of food, finding even one meal a day could become difficult.

The World Food Program says crop failures, similar to the one that hit the Jacksons, happened all across the region and have left almost nine million people in six countries without enough food to survive until the next harvest in April. Penelope Howarth, who runs the WFP's office in southern Malawi, notes that 80 percent of Malawians are subsistence farmers.

Ms. PENELOPE HOWARTH (World Food Program, Malawi): That's not irrigated subsistence agriculture; they're praying for the rain. And when the rain doesn't come at the right time, as what happened this year, people are left with nothing or cobs of maize that won't feed them for, you know, a week.

BEAUBIEN: Malawi is an extremely poor country. Even during a relatively good year when the crops don't fail, almost half the population is categorized by the WFP as chronically malnourished. The stunting of children due to malnutrition is quite common. Despite having Lake Malawi, which runs for 300 miles along its eastern border, there's little irrigation. Howarth with the WFP says people in Malawi live very much on the edge of starvation.

Ms. HOWARTH: People are highly vulnerable to shocks when it comes to the weather. They don't have the coping mechanisms that we have in the West in terms of you can just turn on the tap if it doesn't rain. They don't have taps.

BEAUBIEN: In an effort to avert a famine like the one that contributed to the deaths of thousands of people earlier this year in Niger in West Africa, the WFP is trying to get food into southern Africa before the existing supplies run out. The countries hit hardest by the drought are Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and parts of Mozambique and Zambia. In addition to the drought, HIV and AIDS have ravaged this region, leaving what should be some of the most productive members of society dead or too sick to tend the fields.

The head of the World Food Program for all of southern Africa says the combination of HIV, extreme poverty and fragile agricultural systems has created a chronic, ongoing emergency. He says even if the rains improve during this coming growing season, local small-scale farmers will struggle to feed everyone in the region.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

BEAUBIEN: Back in Malawi, 100-pound bags of corn stamped with the WFP's blue logo are stacked in an elementary school classroom. The bags are being distributed to what the WFP calls the most vulnerable members of the village: the elderly, AIDS orphans and the disabled. Michael Napasi(ph), the chief of the village, says people are getting desperate. Normally at this time of year, most villagers would have food stockpiled in their huts, but this year most have already run out of grain, many are eating only one meal a day and the food aid from the WFP, he says, isn't enough.

Chief MICHAEL NAPASI (Malawi Village Chief): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: `We have determined that there are 351 households in need of food right now,' Napasi says, `yet the grain that's coming is only enough to feed 38 households.'

International donations to the region have improved after the UN's humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland, complained in early September that the appeal for Malawi had raised not a penny. But WFP officials say they still need to come up with another $150 million to feed the millions of people in southern Africa who could run out of food in the coming months. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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