28 November 2002

ZIMBABWE: Famine "very close", WFP warns

The World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Thursday that the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe has deteriorated to the point where "we are very close to famine" among already weakened households, WFP Deputy Country Director Gawaher Atif told IRIN. WFP had aimed to feed three million vulnerable people in November, but does not have the food available to reach that target. It will now have to prioritise who can be fed. "In November we'll focus on the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable, it's a target population that already doesn't have any other source of food except WFP ... We are very, very close to famine here," Atif said. The signs of extreme need are already evident. Wild foods, some poisonous without careful preparation, are being consumed. In food distribution queues, people are scooping up spilled maize kernels. School children are dropping out of class to find casual labour, levels of malnutrition are worsening, and hunger-related diseases are becoming more frequent, WFP said in a statement.

Overall, the agency faces a shortfall of 200,000 mt between now and March 2003. Although WFP's emergency operation has been 60 percent funded, it takes two to three months for those pledges to be translated into food on lorries bound for hungry communities. Another reason for the shortfall, Atif said, was that the Zimbabwean government has not been able to honour an agreement to swap 17,500 mt of locally stored maize for genetically modified grain held by WFP that was to have been milled by the state-owned Grain Marketing Board (GMB). The GMB, which outside WFP's operation has a monopoly on food distribution, has also struggled to import enough cereals to meet needs, due in particular to a lack of foreign exchange. A total of 6.7 million Zimbabweans will require food aid in the coming months leading up to next year's harvest. By January, WFP had planned to increase its distributions to 5.8 million people in 57 districts, subject to the availability of relief supplies. "We need more food," Atif said. "The situation is looking very bleak and that's the bottom line."

In the coming months, despite other potential hurdles like fuel shortages, WFP needs to increase its cereal deliveries to around 65,000 mt a month, "while the government must also rapidly increase its imports, since the economic situation has put more and more people at risk", the WFP statement said. It added the nationwide shortages of maize, bread, milk and sugar has seriously affected members of Zimbabwe's working class, who do not meet WFP's selection criteria. The combination of commercial shortages, high parallel market prices and an accelerating rate of inflation, expected to reach 200 percent by the end of the year, was drastically reducing the capacity of those earning fixed incomes to feed themselves. "The number of those in need keeps soaring and WFP cannot cope on its own. The gap needs to be filled both by the government, as well as by WFP and NGOs. Only a collective effort can hope to combat this crisis," the statement quoted WFP Country Director Kevin Farrell as saying. (IRIN)

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