About 14 million people face hunger in Southern Africa because of a drought that has been exacerbated by an El Nino weather pattern, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said on Monday.
The worst-affected country is Malawi, where 2.8 million people, 16 % of the population, are expected to go hungry, followed by the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar where almost 1.9 million are at risk, WFP said in a statement.
In Zimbabwe, 1.5 million people, more than 10 % of the population, face hunger, WFP said.
“The number of people without enough food could rise significantly over coming months as the region moves deeper into the so-called lean season, the period before the April harvest when food and cash stocks become increasingly depleted,” WFP said in a news release. “Particularly vulnerable are smallholder farmers who account for most agricultural production.”
The cyclical El Niño pattern of devastating droughts on some regions and catastrophic floods in others that can affect tens of millions of people around the globe, is already leading to even worse drought across southern Africa, affecting this year’s crops.
Who turned off the rain?
“With little or no rain falling in many areas and the window for the planting of cereals closing fast or already closed in some countries, the outlook is alarming,” the U.N. agency said.
“WFP is looking to scale up its lean season food and cash-based assistance programmes in the worst-hit countries but faces critical funding challenges,” it added.
The drought has hit much of the region including the maize belt in South Africa, the continent’s most advanced economy and the top producer of the staple grain.
South Africa faces its worst drought in decades after 2015 was the driest calendar year since records began in 1904. Expectations of a dire crop this season could force the country to import up to 6 million tonnes of maize, over half of its consumption needs.
“Driving through southern Zambia, I saw fields of crops severely stressed from lack of water and met farmers who are struggling to cope with a second season of erratic rains,” WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said at the end of a visit to drought-prone southern Zambia.
“Zambia is one of the biggest breadbaskets in the region and what’s happening there gives serious cause for concern not only for Zambia itself but all countries in the region.”
2.8 million in Malawi facing hunger
Worst affected by last year’s poor rains are Malawi with 2.8 million people facing hunger, Madagascar with nearly 1.9 million, and Zimbabwe with 1.5 million and last year’s harvest reduced by half compared to the previous year due to massive crop failure.
In Lesotho, the Government has declared a drought emergency and some 650,000 people, a third of the population, do not have enough food. As elsewhere, water is in extremely short supply for both crops and livestock. Also causing concern are Angola, Mozambique and Swaziland.
Food prices across southern Africa have been rising due to reduced production and availability. The price of maize, the staple for most of the region, is 73 per cent higher in Malawi than the three-year average for this time of year.
“I’m particularly concerned that smallholders won’t be able to harvest enough crops to feed their own families through the year, let alone to sell what little they can in order to cover school fees and other household needs,” Ms. Cousin said.
WFP is working with Governments, regional organizations and other partners on contingency preparedness to secure food supplies and protect people’s livelihoods.
WFP assessment analysts estimate that more than 40 million rural and 9 million urban people in the region live in geographic zones that are highly exposed to the fall-out from El Niño. South Africa, the major breadbasket of the region, has indicated that this El Niño-induced drought is the worst the country has suffered in more than half a century.
One particularly worrying symptom of southern Africa’s vulnerability to food and nutrition security is the alarming rate of chronic malnutrition. Levels of stunting among children in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia are among the worst in the world.
This affects children’s physical growth, cognitive development, as well as their future health and productivity.