African drought prompts call for help

International aid requested as nearly eight million people in Zimbabwe, or half its population, are declared food insecure

The combination of a cyclone and three years of drought in large parts of southern Africa has created a humanitarian crisis in that part of the world.

The World Food Programme is calling on countries to step up assistance to Zimbabwe where nearly eight million people, or half of the country’s population, are food insecure.

The WFP requires over $200 million for emergency response in the first half of 2020.

“As things stand, we will run out of food by end of February, coinciding with the peak hunger season,” Niels Balzer, WFP deputy country director in Zimbabwe, said in a recent news release.

This year’s corn harvest in Zimbabwe was half of what it was in 2018. The country produced less than half of the cereal crops it requires.

Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, said this is a particularly deep drought.

“It’s not just a poor crop, in some parts it’s virtually no crop,” he said.

Two cyclones in 2019 compounded the problem, causing flash flooding that affected an estimated 2.2 million people in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

“It’s a real serious crisis in southern Africa,” said Cornelius.

His organization has committed $6.7 million in aid to the region since March out of its annual $24 million humanitarian crisis budget.

Runaway inflation in Zimbabwe is making life even more difficult. Bread costs 20 times what it cost six months ago, while the price of corn has tripled.

Cornelius said families are skipping meals or cutting out expensive food items, which is leading to malnutrition.

There is no relief in sight to the drought. The long-term outlook is for dry conditions to persist across the region, according to the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring initiative.

“Forecasts show the increased chance of below-normal rainfall from February to March,” said the group in a recent special report on southern Africa.

“There is a high possibility of poor production across Zimbabwe, Zambia and southern Mozambique.”

It would be the fourth consecutive year of drought for the region resulting in yet another below-average crop.

Cornelius said the situation is dire but the humanitarian aid dollars are making their way to the region just in time.

“If that wasn’t happening we’d be looking at famine conditions,” he said.

The humanitarian aid system is functioning better than it was 20 years ago, which is why there is less famine today than there used to be despite an increased need for aid due to climate change and civil strife.

A dried up pond near Binga, Zimbabwe, shows the extent of the drought. | Canadian Foodgrains Bank/ Shaylyn McMahon photo

Cornelius said there are a plethora of problem areas in the world today, including another prolonged drought in northern Kenya and Somalia.

USAID recently announced $257 million in new humanitarian assistance for Somalia, bringing its 2019 total to $498 million. The country is coming off its worst harvest in 25 years and 2.1 million people are experiencing life-threatening hunger.

There are also an increasing number of displaced people due to conflict that need help in places like Lebanon, Syria and Bangladesh.

“The whole humanitarian assistance community is stretched,” said Cornelius.

“That would include us, trying to figure out where to allocate limited resources.”

He thanked the regular donors to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank who make it possible for the organization to provide aid to places like southern Africa where the crisis hasn’t yet made aid-generating headlines around the world.

The bank no longer takes grain but farmers can donate proceeds of crop sales to the organization either on their own or through their local elevator.

“We’re no longer shipping grain,” said Cornelius.

“All the food we provide is sourced closer to the area of need.”

Locally sourced grain can get to where it needs to be faster and cheaper. And it will be grain people are accustomed to eating.

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