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More than a third of Zimbabweans require food assistance

Zimbabwe's poor harvest "due to adverse weather conditions" and an economy wracked by hyperinflation will leave more than a third of the population requiring food assistance by early next year, a joint report released on Tuesday by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said.

Harare - Crop failures in the southern provinces and the rapid erosion of incomes caused by Zimbabwe's annual inflation rate of 3,714% - the world's highest - has escalated poverty in both rural and urban areas. The report said about "2.1 million people will face serious food shortages as early as the third quarter of 2007. The number of people at risk will peak at 4.1 million in the first three months of 2008 – more than a third of Zimbabwe's estimated population of 11.8 million."

The actual percentage of Zimbabweans requiring food assistance could in reality be much higher, as millions of migrants are believed to have crossed into neighbouring countries such as South Africa and Botswana, or further a field to the United States and Europe, in search of work. Some estimates have put the exodus of Zimbabweans at about four million, or more than a third of the population. Zimbabwe has an unemployment rate of about 80%.

Richard Lee, the WFP's regional information officer based in Johannesburg, said he was aware of the reports about large-scale migration of people from Zimbabwe, but the report "had to concern itself" with the official figures gleaned from population growth data based on the country's 2002 census.

Low prices no incentive

The joint mission, which visited Zimbabwe from 25 April to the 18 May, said in their crop and food supply assessment report that about 352,000 tons of cereals and 90,000 tons of other food assistance would be required to meet the country's basic food needs.

"While drought devastated crops in many areas, Zimbabwe's overall production was also hampered by insufficient fertilizer, fuel and tractors and by the country's crumbling irrigation system," Henri Josserand, chief of FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System, said. "Most importantly, uneconomic prices set by the government have discouraged many farmers from producing surplus cereals for sale."

The report said this year's April/May harvest had declined by 44% from last year's official estimate and put the crop estimate at "925,000 tons of cereals, including 799,000 tons of maize and 126,000 tons of sorghum and millet."

"Zimbabwe's looming food crisis is the result of another poor harvest, exacerbated by the country's unprecedented economic decline, extremely high unemployment, and the impact of HIV/AIDS," Amir Abdulla, WFP's Regional Director for Southern Africa, said. According to UNAIDS 20.1% of Zimbabweans between the ages of 15 and 49 years old are infected with HIV/AIDS.


"Hyperinflation, currently over 3,700% per annum, and the ever plummeting Zimbabwe dollar have drastically reduced people's purchasing power, greatly limiting access to available food supplies for low and middle income people, particularly in urban areas," Kisan Gunjal, Joint CFSAM Mission Leader, said.

The report gave the "shocking" example of the effects of hyperinflation on the salary of a teacher, who earn US$10 a month, "when [the] transport cost to work alone can be a significant part of that [the salary]."

Worst affected areas

The report's initial estimates were that about one million people in urban areas would face food shortages over the coming months and could require food assistance.

The worst-affected provinces were Matabeleland South, Matabeleland North, and Midlands, where many families had harvested nothing and could run out of food as early as next month. The cereal harvest in Manicaland and Masvingo was also about half of last year's output.

The report said that "taking into consideration the forthcoming October wheat crop and current stocks ... domestic cereal availability is around 1.29 million tons against a total national utilization of 2.34 million tons – leaving over a million tons to be imported."

The report said the government, which is suffering from a chronic shortage of foreign currency, had already contracted for 400,000 tons of maize from Malawi and was expected to import a further 239,000 tons of wheat and rice. It also estimated that "61,000 tons of maize could to be brought into the country through informal cross-border trade and in-kind remittances, especially from South Africa – leaving a gap of 352,000 tons of cereals to be met by food aid."

Land grab

It was acknowledged in the report that the government's fast track land reform programme launched in 2000, which redistributed commercial farmland owned by white farmers to landless blacks, had "severely disrupted farming activities as many resettled farmers lack access to capital and other inputs."

The joint report recommended that next year's harvest and national food supply would improve if there was "an adequate and timely supply to farmers of good quality seeds and fertilizer ahead of the next cropping season" and urged "the international community to work jointly on improving food security by investing in farm mechanization and infrastructure."

Lee said donor funding had not yet been secured, but since 2002 when food assistance began in Zimbabwe, "the international community had been very generous." He said the only concern was funds were required "urgently."

Article courtesy of IRIN

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