More than 14 million people are facing starvation in six Southern African countries. The crisis attracted international attention in 2002, but it has been years in the making. Many people blame the food shortage on drought. Other factors, particularly the AIDS epidemic, have crippled people's ability to cope with natural disasters.
In a small village in central Swaziland, aid workers hand out standard famine rations - maize, beans, soy protein and cooking oil - to families who have nowhere else to turn. Their crops have failed, mainly due to lack of rain.
Many of the people lining up for food aid are teenage children or elderly grandparents. In many families, the middle generation, the ones who should be working in the fields or factories to feed their families, are either dead or dying of AIDS.
This is a scene repeated over and over again in six southern African countries where the United Nations says 14.5 million people are in danger of starving. U.N. agencies say they need more than $600 million to help all of the affected people in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland. So far, they have only raised half of that.
The regional head of the U.N. World Food Program, Judith Lewis, points out there are many reasons why the crisis has gotten so bad. "I think the message for southern Africa is this crisis, it's different from other crises," she said. "It's not just about a natural disaster, it's not about civil war, it's not about the things that we normally associate with major complex emergencies. This crisis is like no other: it's natural disaster, it's governance, it's HIV, it's economic. I mean, there are just so many factors. And I think that has really, really complicated how we've gone about our work."
Natural disaster has certainly contributed to the crisis. Several countries, including Mozambique, Malawi and Swaziland experienced record flooding in the year 2000. Since then, most of the region has not gotten enough rain. That means two years in a row of bad harvests.
Chronic poverty has also played a role. Of the six countries, only Swaziland is not considered to be among the poorest in the world.
Government mismanagement has led to serious problems as well. In Malawi, for example, the government accidentally sold off all its strategic grain reserves just before the crisis emerged. Nobody has really been able to explain how that happened, or to account for all the money.
But the single biggest factor is the AIDS epidemic. Southern Africa has some of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. In some countries, an estimated 30 percent of all adults have the virus that causes AIDS. The epidemic has left a legacy of orphaned children, weakened families and decimated communities.
According to the regional head of the U.N. Children's Fund, Urbann Jonsson, after two decades, the effect of the epidemic is just beginning to show. "The so-called Southern Africa humanitarian crisis that we know about today is nothing more than the first significant manifestation of the increased vulnerabilities that we see has happened as a result of 10, 15, 20 years of [the] HIV-AIDS pandemic," he said.
Mr. Jonsson spoke in late November in Namibia, at a meeting on AIDS orphans in southern and eastern Africa. At the same meeting, the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy on AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, said AIDS is crippling the region's ability to cope with disaster by killing off the most productive members of society.
"Look at the poisoned nexus between food and HIV-AIDS in 6 southern African countries, where you have 14.4 million people facing starvation," he explained. "That's not a famine complicated by AIDS. That's a famine driven by AIDS, as your agricultural capacity is wiped out."
U.N. agencies say donor nations have responded fairly well to their appeal for funds to deal with the crisis. But other emergencies, elsewhere in the world, are competing for resources. And one final issue has complicated the effort to ease the food crisis: a controversy over genetically modified (GM) food.
Most of the countries receiving aid are concerned about the safety of GM crops, and they did not want donated GM maize to be planted, and then potentially contaminate their local agricultural output. Corn is a staple food in much of the region. The United States, a major donor, could not guarantee that its donated maize was GM-free.
The solution in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho was for the World Food Program to process or mill the corn before giving it to hungry people. That way, they ensure it will be eaten, not planted.
WFP regional coordinator Judith Lewis notes the milling process has slowed down the flow of food aid to the region. "We still are having a problem in terms of addressing the GM issue because we are having to process that food, and that takes time," she says. "So that slows up the food being able to get to the beneficiaries. So that's been one of our major, major hurdles over the last few months."
Milling the corn, however, was not good enough for the government of Zambia. After sending his own scientists to evaluate the issue, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa decided there is not enough evidence that GM food is safe to eat. Although Zambia had previously been receiving GM products, the government changed its policy and decided not to accept any genetically modified food, in any form.
That meant in Zambia, the World Food Program could not use any food donated by the United States, including not just the maize, but also the soy protein and cooking oil, which are both made with genetically modified soybeans.
Mrs. Lewis notes that the decision surprised the U.N. food agency. "We have had to really shift gears and use as much of our cash as possible to buy as much food as we could here in South Africa, to start to move into Zambia," he says. "And certainly we're behind in terms of the deliveries for Zambia because we've had to play catch-up. So it really has complicated our life."
Although the international community has so far responded well to the food shortage in Southern Africa, aid agencies worry that the crisis is still getting worse. The rainy season was supposed to start in October, but in most of the region rains only really began in mid-December. That is likely to mean another year of bad harvests, and another year of hunger for the region's poorest and most vulnerable people.