July 23, 2003

650,000 at risk of hunger

At least 650,000 people in Mozambique are in a situation of food insecurity, as a result of the drought that is affecting much of the south and the centre of the country for the second consecutive year, according to data in the Action Plan for Mitigating the Effects of Drought, launched in Maputo on Tuesday, July 22. The Mozambican government estimates that implementing this plan will cost around four million US dollars over the next six months.

The 650,000 people at risk are living in 57 southern and central districts, the areas worst hit by the poor rainfall of the last two years, believed to be linked to the "El Nino" weather phenomenon. This is an anomalous warming of the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean that disrupts weather systems across the globe.

Presenting the plan, the National Director of Agriculture, Sergio Gouveia, pointed out that in several drought-hit districts what little harvest could be produced was then damaged by cyclone Japhet, which hit parts of Inhambane, Sofala and Manica provinces in March. Gouveia stressed "In 2003, the picture of poor rainfall worsened, and the occurrence of tropical depressions and cyclones has helped push the number of people facing food insecurity to 650,000". In general, the rainfall recorded in the 2002/03 growing season, "was lower than average, and the distributed irregularly over the season, particularly from January to March", he said. "As a result, we estimate that maize yields in the south will be 50 per cent lower than in 2002, and that harvest too was poor". Nonetheless, a total of about four million hectares was planted across the country, and, thanks to the fertile northern province, the grain harvest was about 1.8 million tonnes (of which 1.3 million tonnes is maize). It is also estimated that over 6.1 million tonnes of cassava were produced.

As for plans to increase food security Gouveia stressed the need for better management of water resources. This strategy rests on building or rehabilitating small and medium-sized irrigation schemes, expanding areas under cultivation, and investing in drought-resistant varieties.

In a separate celopment, the general secretary of the Mozambican Red Cross, Fernanda Teixeira, warned in Maputo on Tuesday, July 22, of political and economic interests, including of donor agencies, that have a negative impact on the response to emergency situations. Speaking at the launching of the World disasters Report for 2003, Teixeira said that when humanitarian aid is inadequate this was sometimes because the response "reflects more the interests of the donor agency than the real needs of those who are suffering". She also criticised cases where donors are interested in coping with an emergency, but not with the subsequent reconstruction and development, where imported food wrecks local markets, and where international organisations distort wage structures and poach qualified staff from local institutions.

Teixeira said that saving lives is always the top priority, but "this activity must always be combined with respect for local cultures and customs, with building the capacity of local institutions, and with promoting mutual respect, and economic and social development. This is the only way to guarantee lasting solutions". She added that in recent years the trend has been to pour aid into emergencies where the media have expressed an interest, to the detriment of those which are less camera-friendly, or where there is less political interest. Thus countries seen as key to the United States' "war on terrorism" have been attracting vast amounts of aid - much more than has been channelled to the estimated 40 million Africans suffering from drought, floods or infectious diseases. Teixeira noted that there are dilemmas associated with humanitarian aid, such as "the risk that humanitarian operations may facilitate abuses and violations of human rights".

The Report was launched internationally on 17 July by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and its major stress is on "ethics in humanitarian intervention". For Teixeira, when speaking of ethics in this context, "we are talking, in the first instance, about saving lives, or lessening the suffering of those who are at greatest risk, or who face the greatest needs". "But that's not enough", she added. "Confronted as we are every day by shocking numbers of people living at risk or in suffering, it becomes fundamental that we don't allow ourselves to be taken over by statistics, but that we pay attention to the personal dignity of each woman, each child, each man whose life is threatened". All those who have any role to play in humanitarian aid must know how to protect human dignity, she urged. (AIM, Maputo)

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