April 13, 2024

Extreme drought in Southern Africa leaves millions of people hungry

“I don’t want to waste a single drop,” she said.

His relief at the handout – paid by the US government as his southern African country faces a severe drought – was tempered when aid workers gently broke the news that this would be his last visit.

Ncube and her 7-month-old son on her back were among 2,000 people who received rations of cooking oil, sorghum, peas and other produce in Mangwe district in southwestern Zimbabwe. The food distribution is part of a program financed by the American humanitarian agency USAID and implemented by the United Nations World Food Programme.

Its aim is to help some of the 2.7 million people in rural areas of Zimbabwe threatened with famine due to the drought that has engulfed much of southern Africa since late 2023. It has burned the crops that tens of millions of people grow and depend on . survive, helped by what was supposed to be the rainy season.

They can rely less and less on their crops and the weather.

The drought in Zimbabwe, neighboring Zambia and Malawi has reached crisis levels. Zambia and Malawi have declared national disasters. Zimbabwe may be about to do the same. The drought hit Botswana and Angola, to the west, and Mozambique and Madagascar, to the east.

A year ago, much of this region was inundated by tropical storms and deadly floods. We are in the middle of a vicious climate cycle: it rains too much and then it doesn’t rain enough. It’s a story of climate extremes that scientists say are becoming more frequent and more harmful, especially for the world’s most vulnerable people.

In Mangwe, young and old lined up to eat, some with donkey carts to take home what they could get, others with wheelbarrows. Those waiting their turn sat on the dusty floor. Nearby, a goat tried its luck nibbling on a shaggy, thorny bush.

Ncube, 39, would normally be harvesting crops now – food for herself, her two children and a niece she also cares for. Maybe there was even a little more to sell.

Zimbabwe’s driest February ever, according to the World Food Programme’s seasonal monitor, put an end to that.

“We have nothing in the fields, not a single grain,” she said. “Everything was burned (by the drought).”

The United Nations Children’s Fund says there are “overlapping crises” of extreme weather in East and Southern Africa, with both regions swinging between storms and floods and heat and drought last year.

In Southern Africa, an estimated 9 million people, half of whom are children, need help in Malawi. More than 6 million people in Zambia, 3 million of whom are children, are affected by the drought, UNICEF said. This represents almost half of Malawi’s population and 30% of Zambia’s.

“It is regrettable that extreme weather conditions will become the norm in East and Southern Africa in the coming years,” said Eva Kadilli, UNICEF regional director.

While man-made climate change has led to more erratic weather conditions globally, something else is plaguing southern Africa this year.

El Niño, the natural climate phenomenon that warms parts of the Pacific Ocean every two to seven years, has varying effects on the world’s climate. In Southern Africa, it means below average rainfall, sometimes drought, and is being blamed for the current situation.

The impact is most severe in Mangwe, where it is notoriously arid. People grow cereals, sorghum and millet, crops that are drought resistant and offer a harvest opportunity, but even these were unable to withstand the conditions this year.

Francesca Erdelmann, the World Food Programme’s country director for Zimbabwe, said last year’s harvest was bad, but this season is even worse. “This is not a normal circumstance,” she said.

The first months of the year are traditionally the “lean months”, when families are left with shortages while waiting for the new harvest. However, there is little hope of a replacement this year.

Joseph Nleya, a 77-year-old traditional leader in Mangwe, said he doesn’t remember it being so hot, so dry, so desperate. “The dams have no water, the riverbeds are dry and there are few boreholes. We were counting on berries, but they also dried up,” he said.

People are illegally crossing into Botswana in search of food and “hunger is turning people who would otherwise be workers into criminals,” he added.

Several aid agencies warned last year of the impending disaster.

Since then, Zambia’s President Hakainde Hichilema has stated that 1 million of his country’s 2.2 million hectares of staple maize crops have been destroyed. Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera has appealed for $200 million in humanitarian assistance.

The 2.7 million people struggling in rural Zimbabwe do not even represent the full picture. A national harvest assessment is underway and authorities fear the results, with the number of people needing help likely to rise sharply, WFP’s Erdelmann said.

With this year’s harvest nullified, millions of people in Zimbabwe, southern Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar will not be able to feed themselves adequately until 2025. USAID’s Famine Early Warning System estimated that 20 million people would need help food in Southern Africa next year. first months of 2024.

Many will not receive this aid, as aid agencies also have limited resources in the midst of a global hunger crisis and a cut in humanitarian funding by governments.

When WFP officials made their last visit to Mangwe, Ncube was already calculating how long the food would last him. She said she hoped it would be long enough to allay her biggest fear: that her youngest child would fall into malnutrition even before his first birthday.


Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa.


The Associated Press receives financial support for global health and development coverage in Africa from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters, and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

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