for famine in southern Africa
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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."