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UN: Food Shortage in Southern Africa Worsening - 2002-04-25

The United Nations says the food shortage in six southern African countries is going to get worse during the next three months. The U.N. World Food Program has launched an appeal for aid from the international community to avoid a major crisis

The World Food Program, WFP, said drought has led to severe food shortages in six countries. The agency said Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are worst affected. But Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho are also facing serious food problems.

The WFP regional director for eastern and southern Africa, Judith Lewis, just finished a three-week tour of five of the affected ountries. "People are seriously affected in these countries, and unfortunately we think that we are going to see a wider disaster unfolding over the next few months," Ms. Lewis said.

Ms. Lewis told reporters the World Food Program is feeding 2.6 million people in southern Africa. She fears that number could double. The WFP official said the agency is in the process of evaluating exactly how bad the situation is and how much food aid the region will need. She said she expects to have an answer by the end of May.

In the meantime, WFP officials have issued an urgent appeal for help from the international community. Last month, they asked donor nations for $69 million. So far, they have only received 3 million, although more money has been pledged.

Ms. Lewis said she was shocked by what she saw on her tour of southern Africa.

She said the crisis is perhaps most acute in Malawi. "We saw traditional African customs absolutely being violated. We had story after story after story of farmers having their fields totally decimated by thieves, by theft. People are afraid to go to weddings and funerals because they're afraid their whole crop will be stolen. And this is absolutely unheard of in the past," Ms. Lewis said.

Ms. Lewis has said people throughout the region are turning to other foods because the staples of their diet - such as cornmeal - are not available. She said that in Malawi, she saw women harvesting grass seed to eat. And she came across a man who was diving into a crocodile-infested river to harvest water-lily bulbs.

"And I said, why would you do this, why would you risk your life when you've seen your friends be attacked and killed by these crocodiles? And he said, I have no alternative, I have nothing to feed my children," she said.

The food shortage is not only due to this year's drought. Most of the affected countries are still recovering from other natural disasters in previous years - including both drought and floods. Ms. Lewis says the AIDS epidemic is also a contributing factor.

And, she said, government policies are also to blame to some extent. Strategic grain reserves are badly depleted in Zambia and Malawi. She said the land-redistribution program in Zimbabwe has badly hurt maize production there.

The World Food Program had hoped it would be able to buy corn from South Africa to help feed the rest of the region. But the drought has affected South Africa's harvest as well. Ms. Lewis said South Africa will not have enough maize available for export this year to meet all of its neighbors' needs. That means the World Food Program will have to import food from outside the region, which is more expensive and takes longer.