The humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe is a growing combination of problems made worse by a collapse in the country's health infrastructure.
Among those who've seen the problems first hand is Tony Durham of the NGO ActionAid. He's just returned to London from Zimbabwe and spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the humanitarian crisis.
"Zimbabwe has really been in a continuing emergency for several years. Since the drought of 2003, there's been really hunger every year and there are now about four million people who need food aid. And that's going to increase to probably more than five million within a few weeks. On top of that, there's come this outbreak of cholera, which when I last looked had killed at least 1100 people," he says.
Hunger and the cholera outbreak have both affected those living with HIV/AIDS.
"Southern Africa as a whole is really this worst affected area with HIV and AIDS. I'm not sure I can give you an accurate figure for the incident in Zimbabwe, and any statistics are fairly suspect, but virtually everyone in the country, if not infected with HIV, is affected by it in some way because someone in their family is affected. So that kind of underlies all the other crises that have arrived in Zimbabwe. Cholera, for example, is a real problem for anyone whose immune system is compromised by HIV. It's also going to be a problem if the person in the household, who cares for someone with HIV goes down with cholera. Likewise, with hunger, people who could be producing food are laid low with AIDS or are having to look after a family member with AIDS. So, that's contributing to the hunger," he says.
Durham says those infected with HIV need good nutrition, not just medicine, to survive. "They need to keep their bodies built up. They need to eat regularly if they're getting anti-retroviral (drug) therapy. And all those things become really problematic when there's a food shortage like now," he says.
The health infrastructure in the country is no longer able to deal with a sick population. "Many public hospitals have closed. We went past one in northern Harare, which would normally have been a scene of activity, and there was simply nobody on the site as far as we could see. Schools have closed. I mean it's not just the holiday. They closed during term time and children missed their annual examinations. And for us it's a problem that the schools are closed because it's one of the ways we support children with food by providing a daily [serving] of porridge at the school. So, in some places we are actually going to the schools, and though there's no teaching going on, we're still giving the children their food, which is sometimes the only food they get every day," he says.
Durham says the international community can do more to help Zimbabweans. "Looking purely at the humanitarian point of view, the looming thing is the food crisis, quite honestly. The World Food Program is underfunded for Zimbabwe, so international donors should be pumping more money into the World Food Program and also into NGOs like ourselves because we're at the beginning of what we call the peak hunger season, which is from around December to March or April, when the next harvest should come. But it's not going to be a good harvest as far as we can see. The rains began late. Many farmers were unable to get the inputs they need like seeds and fertilizers and fuel. So, we know in advance that's it's going to be a poor harvest and the hunger is going to continue into 2009," he says.
ActionAid directly supports about 23,000 households in Zimbabwe with food aid, particularly those considered vulnerable, such as those living with HIV/AIDS. The NGO is also supporting farmers, including about 1400 women farmers. They received seeds, fertilizer and training. As for cholera, ActionAid is operating a prevention campaign in collaboration with other aid agencies."People don't shake hands any longer if they're aware of cholera. You do a sort of fist bump or wrist bump instead to avoid transferring germs. But there's a real risk ahead in the coming months because it's the rainy season. There could be floods. And that's going to mean contaminated waters flowing over the landscape. The hazard hasn't gone at all," he says.