About 14 million people face hunger in southern Africa

An estimated 14 million people are facing hunger in southern Africa as a result of prolonged dry spells that led to a poor harvest last year.

Top maize producer South Africa has announced plans to import up to 6 million tonnes in 2016 as the effect of extreme weather phenomenon El Niño bites harder in the region where agriculture is predominantly rain-fed. This year does not offer much hope as worsening drought across the region is already affecting crops. 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 United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) notes.

“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.”

Last year’s poor rains mostly affected 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. The WFP is also concerned about Angola, Mozambique and Swaziland.

With production reducing, food is becoming scarce and prices across southern Africa have been rising. 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’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.

Chronic malnutrition is now at an alarming rate, with levels of stunting among children in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia among the worst in the world.

WFP is looking to scale up its food and cash-based assistance programmes in the worst-hit countries but funding has been a big challenge. While it tries to address this, the organisation is working with governments, regional organizations and other partners on contingency, preparedness and response plans to secure food supplies and protect people’s livelihoods.

It has employed mobile technology to monitor food security, food prices and trade flows.