Last year’s drought, followed by erratic rains, hit the village of Nkhotakota hard. But this year the rains never came and, for a second year running, the family grain store is empty. If they manage their savings carefully and eat just one small meal a day, they may just have enough food for two more months.

Harvest should be the time for celebrations, weddings and full bellies in southern Malawi. But Christopher Witimani, Lilian Matafle and their seven children and four grandchildren had nothing to celebrate last week as they picked their meagre maize crop.

By August, said Irish charity Concern Worldwide, they and tens of thousands of other small farmers in southern Malawi will have completely run out of food, with no prospect of another harvest for at least seven months. With nothing to sell and no chance of earning money, Witimani, Matafle and family will starve.

“I am worried the children will starve to death. I don’t know what to do,” said Matafle.

“We need food. We are in a desperate situation,” her husband added.

Countries are just waking up to the most serious global food crisis of the last 25 years. Caused by the strongest El Niño weather event since 1982, droughts and heatwaves have ravaged much of India, Latin America and parts of south-east Asia. But the worst effects of this natural phenomenon, which begins with waters warming in the equatorial Pacific, are to be found in southern Africa. A second consecutive year without rain now threatens catastrophe for some of the poorest people in the world.

The scale of the crisis unfolding in 10 or more southern African countries has shocked the United Nations. Lulled into thinking that Ethiopia in 1985 was the last of the large-scale famines affecting many millions, donor countries have been slow to pledge funds or support. More than $650m and 7.9m tonnes of food are needed immediately, says the UN. By Christmas, the situation will have become severe.

Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Madagascar, Angola and Swaziland have already declared national emergencies or disasters, as have seven of South Africa’s nine provinces. Other countries, including Botswana and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have also been badly hit. President Robert Mugabe has appealed for $1.5bn to buy food for Zimbabwe and Malawi is expected to declare that more than 8 million people, or half the country, will need food aid by November.

Serena Gadinala
Serena Gadinala, from the in Neno district of Malawi, has tried different planting techniques but nothing worked and her crops continue to wilt. Photograph: Tamara van Vliet/OCHA

More than 31 million people in the region are said by the UN to need food now, but this number is expected to rise to at least 49 million across almost all of southern Africa by Christmas. With 12 million more hungry people in Ethiopia, 7 million in Yemen, 6 million in Southern Sudan and more in the Central African Republic and Chad, a continent-scale food crisis is unfolding.

“Food security across southern Africa will start deteriorating by July, reaching its peak between December 2016 and April 2017,” says the UN’s office for humanitarian affairs. The regional cereal deficit already stands at 7.9m tonnes and continues to put upward pressure on market prices, which are already showing unprecedented increases, diminishing purchasing power and thereby reducing food access. As food insecurity tightens and water scarcity increases due to the drought, there are early signs of acute malnutrition in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabawe.

For Coco Ushiyama, head of the UN’s World Food Programme in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, just working out how to import a million tonnes of food, needed to support between five million and eight million people in Malawi over the next 12 months, is proving nightmarishly difficult. With no guarantees of money from donors, she cannot buy the food on the open market, or book ships and transport.

“We are very concerned. Last year, like many other countries in the region, Malawi had a double disaster with erratic rains and then floods which led into droughts,” said Ushiyama. “Last year, 2.8 million people were affected. Then we had a deficit of 220,000 tonnes of food. This year, we are anticipating it will be four times as bad. The maize price is already exceptionally high.

“We are monitoring 50 markets throughout the country and already they are seeing abnormally high prices. We have very worryingly high admission rates for childhood malnutrition in health clinics. In some areas it is very serious already and it is likely to get much more serious. It will be a regional issue,” she said.

The government has declared a disaster and will publish a new assessment of its needs in the next few weeks. The vice-president, Saulos Chilima, has said that about 1.3m tonnes of maize will be needed.

Politicians may talk of going on to the world market to buy a million tonnes of maize, but Ushiyama is unsure where it will come from. There is usually enough food in the region, but South Africa, which usually exports a million tonnes of food a year, will need to import 3.5m tonnes this year. Only Zambia may have enough food to export and it has imposed restrictions, she said.

“South Africa is in trouble. Nearby Zambia has had a better harvest than most countries but it has put export restrictions on its food. If we import it [from outside Africa], the food will take four to six months [to arrive]. We have learned from experience that the rains start in November so the roads will be terrible when the food is most needed and some lorry drivers will refuse to come. By November, we will need to have pre-positioned food in key areas. But to get it there by then means ordering the food right now,” she said.

People are divide pulses among themselves at a United Nations World Food Programme food distribution centre in Chikwawa district, Malawi.
People are divide pulses among themselves at a United Nations World Food Programme food distribution centre in Chikwawa district, Malawi. Photograph: Tamara van Vliet/OCHA

Finding the cash to feed possibly 50 million people for eight or more months is the biggest problem of all, says the UN, because Africa’s slow-burn crisis must compete with Middle East wars, refugees and natural disasters for attention. According to the UN, which is holding an unprecedented humanitarian summit this week in Istanbul, 125 million people worldwide need long-term assistance and a further 60 million have been forced from their homes by war, violence and disaster.

More than $1.5bn has been requested by southern African governments, says Ocha, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, but less than a quarter of this has been pledged. Officially, the deficit is $677 million (87%) but this will grow when countries complete their assessments of the harvests in the next few weeks.

“The window for responding in a meaningful manner is closing rapidly,” said Shadrack Omol, senior adviser to the UN children’s fund, Unicef. “The concern is that slow-onset emergencies, like the one we are dealing with in southern Africa, do not get enough attention because they creep up on us.”

John Makina, Oxfam country director in Malawi, said: “The donors just do not have the money; there is donor fatigue. Malawi has been hit by drought, then floods, then drought. The donors are getting tired of it. In 2015, Malawi alone needed $170m. In 2016-17, it will be far more.

“The full impact will be felt from October to March 2017. It’s looking really bad. The most affected will be the poorest and jobless. They will end up selling what little they possess. The price of maize flour has already gone to 9,000 kwachas (£8.70) for 50kg. It will double again for sure,” he said.

International development minister Nick Hurd, who has visited Mozambique, wants Britain to lead the humanitarian effort. But money cannot be given directly to the country following a corruption scandal, and the government must work through a consortium of NGOs, providing food vouchers, medical aid and food-for-work schemes.

“We cannot and will not stand idly by while millions suffer. Britain is playing a leading role in helping countries across Africa to cope with the impact of El Niño. Support for people affected by El Niño is important to Africa and also firmly in Britain’s national interest,” says Hurd.

In villages across southern Africa, people are fearful, unsure how they will survive. In Mozambique, where Britain is contributing £11.8m over three years, some food aid has arrived in the village of Mblalava.

A farmer tries to grow crops with the help of a United Nations supported irrigation scheme in the Neno district of Malawi.
A farmer tries to grow crops with the help of a United Nations supported irrigation scheme in the Neno district of Malawi. Photograph: Tamara van Vliet/OCHA

The women are ecstatic: “It’s been two and a half years since we had good rain,” said Rosita Chauque, a mother of three. “When the drought started we used to be able to find vegetables in the bush, but even these have gone now. We used to make and sell charcoal, but there are so many other people doing that now it’s not possible. We have thought of leaving, but where to? We have no crops in the fields, no food for the cattle and nothing for ourselves. There is no water, no grass. People are selling their animals. They have no other resources. There is a lot of suffering.”

“The situation is critical,” said Abdoulaye Balde, the World Food Programme country director in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo. “We are at the point of no return.”

Droughts and “hungry seasons” are common throughout southern Africa, but the breadth of this year’s crisis is very unusual, says Caoimhe de Barra, Malawi country director of Concern Worldwide. Her frontline workers see rural people already employing traditional coping strategies, including eating wild foods, taking children out of school, selling their animals and assets.

“Early action is key. If we can start supporting people now, we can save lives and prevent an even worse situation later this year. People are not currently dying of hunger but the overall health of the population will be severely affected by hunger-related illnesses. Malnutrition will blight the life chances of countless more Malawian children,” she said.

The secretary general of the International Red Cross, Elhadj As Sy, who visited Malawi and Zimbabwe last week, said: “Much more needs to be done to support communities to survive and strive over the coming months. We met families who have received no external support and who are simply desperate. We need to urgently scale up our interventions to prevent this situation from becoming a catastrophe,” he said.

Relief from Africa’s long drought may finally be coming, says the World Meteorological Organisation, which is monitoring the temperature of waters in the Pacific. These are said to be cooling rapidly and are expected to be “neutral” by mid-June. That, says the UN, signals the coming end of the El Niño, the droughts and the worldwide heatwaves.

The effects, however, will not be felt in southern Africa until April 2017 when the next main harvest should be in. But, says the WMO, there may be a sting in the tale. There is a 50:50 chance that the continent will be hit from September by El Niño’s climatic “twin”, known as La Niña, which develops as the Pacific Ocean equatorial waters cool after an El Niño.

Instead of droughts, La Niña usually brings heavier monsoon rains in south-east Asia and much cooler and wetter conditions in southern Africa.

“We pray hard for rain and then we must pray harder that it stops. Is there no end of extreme weather?” said Malawian villager Richard Kapenda.

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