(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

WFP launches US $60 million food aid appeal

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The World Food Programme (WFP) has launched an urgent appeal for US $60 million to feed more than 550,000 rural Zimbabweans faced with severe food shortages.

WFP regional director for eastern and southern Africa Judith Lewis told IRIN on Thursday that the agency hoped to secure funding as quickly as possible to ensure that food distributions were underway in January. She appealed to donors for cash contributions, saying that this would help secure food stocks rapidly and locally.

"We are in the process now of identifying non-governmental organisations on the ground who have experience in food aid and distributions. We need implementing partners who can hit the ground running. We have been planning on using these organisations as partners so as not to lose time and in the next few weeks we will have workshops with them," Lewis said.

Lewis dismissed widespread concern among NGOs in Zimbabwe that the government would use food aid as a political tool during the run-up to next March's presidential election by providing aid to vulnerable rural populations only. She said WFP and other assessments indicated that rural populations were in dire need. Further assessments would be done, she said, with a view to extending the relief operation to urban centres where poverty and hunger have been deepening. She also said the operations would be closely monitored so as to provide donors with feedback.

The Zimbabwean government asked for international assistance in October and signed an agreement with WFP on Tuesday, paving the way for the agency to begin operations. In a WFP statement earlier, Lewis said: "We've been carefully monitoring the growing food shortages in Zimbabwe and what we're seeing right now is a developing complex emergency – a variety of serious problems which when added up, gravely threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of people."

Already, many Zimbabweans averaged only one meal a day, or even went an entire day without food, the statement said. What little grain many rural families managed to harvest last year was consumed long ago and their ability to buy food on the market was hindered by increasingly high prices, and limited opportunities to either earn cash through casual labour, or receive money from family or friends who worked in urban areas or in South Africa, it added.

"The hardest-hit populations are spread throughout 22 districts located in the south, west and extreme north of Zimbabwe -areas where food shortages and hunger are a chronic problem. In past years, the government brought food surpluses from the north to meet the needs in structurally food deficit areas, mostly in southern Zimbabwe.

However this year, the food gap cannot be filled internally nor externally – not enough food can be bought from neighbouring countries due to a lack of foreign exchange. This is aggravating the country's already low cereal stocks and without replenishment, they will disappear in the next few months," according to the statement.

The large-scale threat to food security in Zimbabwe was highlighted in April/May this year by a WFP/FAO Crop and Food Supply Mission to Zimbabwe, which reported a 24 percent drop in the country's main season crop production and an overall food deficit of 447,000 mt.

On Wednesday the US-based Famine Early Warning System (FEWS-NET) said Zimbabwe's maize supplies could run out before the end of this month. In its monthly assessment FEWS-NET said the maize supply had fallen to about 96,000 mt by late November and that stocks could run dry by the end of December unless about 150,000 mt of ordered maize arrived in time.

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