Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
May 29, 2002
Bracing for famine in southern Africa
Weather, wars and low food production spark fears of an impending catastrophe.


MTUMODZI, Malawi -- Normally, Mutithelanji Kaundama would be feasting on the harvest from her small farm. But in the scarcity brought on by drought, Kaundama's family was forced to eat its stunted corn crop a few months ago, before it ripened.

"I had green maize but we ate all of it to survive, so there was nothing left to harvest," said Kaundama, wrapped in a thin, soiled cloth to ward off the autumn chill as she sat outside the Chankhungu Health Center, where she brought her malnourished 3-year-old son for therapeutic feeding.

Still, Kaundama was better off than some. At least she survived the months of scarcity before the harvest, when many famished farmers in this small southern African country lost their crops entirely - some to the vagaries of weather, some to starving wildlife, and some to thieves willing to risk the wrath of angry vigilantes to fill their empty bellies. 

With the markets now temporarily stocked from the meager harvest, Malawians are experiencing a brief respite from catastrophe. But humanitarian officials say the lull is deceptive, for the country has scarce reserves with which to feed itself in the coming months.

"Most of the maize was used before maturing, and so we are projecting that from June onward we will be having problems," said Willie Gidala, the coordinator of Malawi's Office of Disaster Preparedness, Rehabilitation and Relief.

Malawi is not alone. U.N. officials say a prolonged drought across southern Africa could trigger a disaster affecting millions of people if international assistance does not come soon.

"We've got a little time to prepare to prevent a famine from beginning," said Kerren Hedlund, an emergency officer for the U.N.'s World Food Program.

Humanitarian officials say the potential problem is so vast that even if Western nations contribute the full amount required - three million metric tons worth as much as $1 billion - there might not be enough trucks and trains in southern Africa to transport it.

"It's a daunting task because we haven't really started yet," said Nick Osborne, the Malawi representative for the aid agency Care International.

Osborne, who has worked in Africa for 13 years, said he has been struck by how emaciated Malawi's children are. "It was just so startling," he said. "I had never seen children so hungry before."

Like most food emergencies that periodically strike Africa, the current shortage is not simply the result of poor weather.

Wars in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo have taken millions of acres of farms out of production. In Swaziland, the government put more resources into production of its sugarcane cash crop than staple foods.

In Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe's government has sanctioned the invasions of thousands of white-owned commercial farms by ruling-party militants, maize production is expected to amount to only 25 percent of normal. The Famine Early Warning System unit of the U.S. Agency for International Development says 1.2 million tons of food are needed in Zimbabwe to meet basic needs.

Though Malawi needs less than its neighbors, its problem is more severe because it is has few resources to help it cope. Malawi has a comparable population - 12 million people - to Zimbabwe and Zambia, but it has far less land and no mineral resources. Nearly all its export earnings come from tobacco.

In Malawi, the drought was compounded by government's slow reaction, mismanagement of strategic grain reserves, and the badly timed implementation of market reforms imposed by international lending institutions. Maize prices quadrupled in the last year; a kilogram of corn now costs as much as a casual worker can earn from a day's labor - about 30 cents.

"Food imports have suffered from a complete litany of disasters," said Harry Potter, the natural-resources adviser for the British Department for International Development, the largest donor to its former colony.

Under pressure from international donors to reduce its rotting 167,000-ton grain reserves, Malawi last year sold off all but 4,000 tons under shadowy circumstances and has been unable to account for the proceeds of the sale. As a result, the IMF suspended new loans in November, and Western donors such as Britain and the United States - whose aid accounts for more than half of Malawi's $100 million budget - followed suit.

Government officials blame international pressure for halting the subsidies that had kept maize prices artificially low. Their removal boosted prices beyond the reach of most people here, where average per-capita earnings are less than $180.

In addition, cuts in seed and fertilizer grants to small growers contributed to a reduction in maize production, they said.

"It's much better to subsidize production than to subsidize consumption through handouts," said Agriculture Minister Aleke Banda, who said the seed subsidies would resume this year. "I think the shortage is caused by the combination of bad judgment on various fronts."

Though international agencies had been warning Malawi of dangerous food shortages since August, it was not until Feb. 27 after rains failed and local leaders began reporting people dying of starvation that President Bakili Muluzi declared an emergency. "The president was in denial about the severity of the problem," a local government official said.

Humanitarian officials said the difficulty projecting the need is hampered by the lack of solid data. "At the end of the day, we don't really know how much food is produced, how much is consumed, and how much is needed," said Roger Yochelson, the Malawi representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Western donors plan to ship 250,000 tons to Malawi this year; the U.S. government is targeting 80,000 tons. The exact amounts will be determined in June when the World Food Program convenes a meeting in South Africa to allocate resources in the region.

"No matter what we do, there will still be people who go hungry," Tochelson said.

The macroeconomic explanations and finger-pointing are little solace to small farmers like Kaundama, abandoned by her husband years ago, with five children to feed and less than two acres of parched land. Most of her relatives' assets are exhausted.

"I don't have a strategy for the the next year," Kaundama said as she sat outside the health center, shucking someone else's corn for a daily wage of 25 cents and the privilege of keeping the cobs as fuel. "I'm at a loss how I will provide for my family." home page   
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