The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is increasingly concerned about food security in southern Africa where an estimated 14 million people are facing hunger following prolonged dry spells that led to a poor harvest last year.
The El Niño global weather event, which is leading to even worse drought across the region, is already affecting this year's crop. 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 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. Particularly vulnerable are smallholder farmers who account for most agricultural production.
“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,” said WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin who just concluded 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.”
Worst affected in the region by last year's poor rains are Malawi (2.8 million people facing hunger), Madagascar (nearly 1.9 million people) and Zimbabwe (1.5 million) where last year's harvest was reduced by half compared to the previous year because of massive crop failure.
In Lesotho, the government last month declared a drought emergency and some 650,000 people — one third of the population — do not have enough food. In Lesotho 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 percent 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,” said Cousin.
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. At the same time, WFP is working with governments, regional organizations and other partners on contingency, preparedness and response plans to secure food supplies and protect people's livelihoods. Central to WFP's role is its use of innovative mobile technology to monitor food security, food prices and trade flows.
WFP's food security 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, the strongest such weather event for more than three decades. 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.