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African Drought’s Threat Expands: IFRC Chief

Subsistence farmer Joice Chimedza harvests maize on her small plot in Norton, a farming area outside Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, May 10, 2016. Many farmers have lost crops and cattle as the drought has gone on since 2015.

Up to 49 million people may be affected by the ongoing drought in southern Africa, a massive jump from previous estimates, the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said Tuesday in announcing the organization would step up relief efforts.

IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy announced a $112 million, four-year initiative to address the crisis hammering the region. But he added that the emergency aid response was not enough, and that aid groups also would need to respond to issues of resilience and infrastructure. He said the effort also would focus on helping communities learn to better cope with future shocks.

The El Nino weather phenomenon that began last year has battered much of southern Africa with severe floods, followed by severe drought. It already has affected an estimated 31.6 million people.

“That number may climb to even 49” million, Sy said. “… There are a number of assessments going on, and this is the reason you’ll always hear these fluctuating numbers.”

Sy just wrapped up a trip to some of the worst-affected drought zones in Malawi and Zimbabwe.

The father of five told VOA he was deeply moved by people experiencing the crisis – not just by their plight, he said, but by their resilience, optimism and desire for dignity.

He beamed with fatherly pride as he showed photos of himself with a little Zimbabwean girl who was clutching a bag of cookies and basking in the limelight of attention – a small spark of joy, he said, amid this crisis.

Sy spoke of the mother who insisted on using part of her meager funds to buy soap so her children could be presentable. And he spoke of the desperation – and determination – of a young man who spent more than an hour digging in a dried-out riverbed for less than a gallon of water.

The southern Africa drought plan is part of the One Billion Coalition for Resilience, an initiative designed to help at least 1 billion people around the world to cope with adversity by 2025. The IFRC-led plan is uniting governments, civic organizations and philanthropies to bolster individual and community capacity.