'Acutely serious' hunger in Zimbabwe

A government report blamed constant power failures for a drastic drop in wheat production, the official media reported Sunday. A two thirds shortfall in wheat harvests was expected to worsen chronic bread shortages.

Most bakeries were closed during the past week as flour deliveries dried up. Stores displayed signs that already erratic bread supplies would not be available until further notice.

The government announced on Tuesday it was importing 100 000 tonnes of wheat, but has acknowledged the first shipment of 35 000 tonnes were delayed at the Mozambique port of Beira as authorities sought hard currency to pay for it.

The Agricultural Research and Extension (Arex) department of the Ministry of Agriculture said power failures cutting off irrigation forced wheat farmers across the country to abandon wheat crops during germination, leaving a total current harvest of about 145 000 tonnes, two thirds short of projected requirements.

Yields of surviving crops were also down from a target of five tonnes a hectare to two to three tonnes a hectare, said Arex in its latest crop assessment report, the official Sunday Mail newspaper reported.

Zimbabwe is facing daily power failures caused by shortages of spares, replacement equipment and coal.
Breakdowns have plagued the western Hwange coal mine atop the biggest quality coal deposits in Southern Africa estimated to contain 500 years of reserves at present consumption.

The country imports nearly 40% of its power from its neighbours. The state power utility warned on Friday it increased load shedding by 50% after Mozambique reduced its electricity exports over an outstanding debt of $35-million.

In the worst economic crisis since independence in 1980, there are acute shortages of hard currency, food, most basic goods and fuel.

The United Nations World Food Programme estimates at least three million people, a quarter of the population, will need emergency food aid before the next harvests of corn, the staple food, in April. UN officials said hunger in some districts is now “acutely serious”.

Planting of irrigated tobacco seedlings that began this month was also hard hit by power failures, the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, a black farmers group, said on Friday. Many farmers reported their seedlings had wilted and died.

Zimbabwe was once the second-largest tobacco exporter in the world after Brazil. Cigarettes have disappeared from shops and on the thriving black market fetch at least 10 times the government’s fixed price.

By weight, local wild marijuana has become cheaper than cigarettes on the illegal market, where even the Canadian Mohawk cigarette brand has appeared, said to have been smuggled in from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Earlier this month, Arex warned cotton farmers to destroy harvested fields to prevent the spread of cotton blight. It said many growers stopped the necessary practice of slashing down old stalks because of shortages of seeds and other supplies to plant anew.

Newspapers were also in short supply on Sunday. The state newspaper company and the sole independent Sunday paper have cut print operations because of shortages of paper and materials and falling advertising on consumer goods no longer available in stores.

The independent Standard sold out on the streets before 9am, vendors said. - Sapa-AP

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