/ 28 July 2008

Spectre of famine as harvest fails

Millions of Zimbabweans face starvation after the widespread failure of the latest harvest brought on by the government’s disastrous mishandling of land redistribution and food shortages in shops caused by hyperinflation.

The United Nations says hundreds of thousands of people require food aid immediately because they have harvested little or nothing in recent weeks.

It has warned that up to five million will need assistance in the coming months. A third of the population is chronically malnourished.

But attempts to assist them are blocked by a ban on foreign aid agencies working in rural areas after Robert Mugabe said they were fronts for ”regime change” by Britain and the United States.

Aid workers pointed to significant population movements and children arriving at hospitals suffering from kwashiorkor. Many families are reduced to one meal a day, with some living on wild berries.

The UN says that it has seen a significant rise in the number of entire families fleeing to South Africa.

Food availability has also been hit by hyperinflation, which economists say is running at above 10-million percent. The central bank issued a Z$100-billion note this week, worth less than R100.

Mugabe defiantly continues to blame the shortages on an anti-government conspiracy, accusing companies of deliberately withholding fertiliser and other agricultural necessities. He has threatened to jail those he says are responsible.

A medical worker in Matabeleland, where the maize crop failure was almost total, said that there were widespread food shortages. What arrived was mostly given to Zanu-PF members.

”The situation is extremely severe in Matabeleland. Hunger is extreme. The odd maize deliveries only go to people with Zanu cards. Where there is food people can’t afford it,” she said.

”In St Luke’s hospital in Lupane, 16 children aged five to 12 have kwashiorkor. That’s significant because in children of that age it’s usually not related to HIV. It’s almost certainly because of malnutrition. These are the ones who made it to hospital. Most wouldn’t.”

In the Masvingo area in the east, witnesses say newly settled farmers are abandoning their land after the crop failures and are heading for the towns. A Zimbabwean official said many people were now resorting to desperate measures to survive, including selling off precious livestock that often represented most of a family’s wealth.

”They get five kilos of maize for two goats; for a cow it’s 300 kilos,” the official said. ”People are no longer interested in politics. They are talking about how to survive, how to get money or food.”

A report last month by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation and World Food Programme estimated that the recent maize harvest was down 28% on last year, which itself fell 44% from 2006.

The former white-owned farms are producing just 10% of the food they did a decade ago and long-established communal farmers, who used to grow the bulk of Zimbabwe’s maize supply, are now growing about 25% of former production quantities.

The UN report blames the crop failure on a combination of poor weather, a collapse in productivity on redistributed white-owned farms and government policies that have helped created shortages of seeds and fertiliser and have led to the collapse of the power supply and irrigation. State rice controls have also undermined the market.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation/World Food Programme (FAO/WFP) report said two million people will need assistance in the coming weeks as what remains of their food stocks runs out. That number will rise to five million early next year.

A WFP spokesperson, Richard Lee, said the principal obstacle to food delivery was the ban on foreign aid organisations that handle distribution on the ground. ”The issue is the continuing ban on NGO activity. We were rounding up 300 000 of the most vulnerable people, but because of the restrictions we’re only able to reach about 135 000. NGOs are crucial to our ability to deliver,” he said.

The UN is pressing the government to lift the ban, although some foreign aid agencies feel it is not pushing hard enough. Lee said that the WFP was hearing anecdotal evidence ”that the situation is worrying in many areas”. ”We’re hearing … stories about reduction in meals earlier than usual. It is worrying that it is happening so close to the harvest,” he said.

Agriculturalists warn that the situation is not likely to improve with the next harvest. Zimbabwe requires 27 000 tons of maize seed for a season’s planting. This year’s yield looks likely to fall to 2 500 tons, leaving farmers little to plant. —