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Five million people will require food assistance, FAO/WFP says

[Zimbabwe] WFP food depot
(Obinna Anyadike/IRIN)

More than 5 million Zimbabweans will suffer food insecurity in the next nine months, a million people more than the previous year, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) said in its crop assessment forecast released on 18 June.

"The Mission estimates that 2.04 million people in rural and urban areas will be food insecure between July and September 2008, rising to 3.8 million people between October and peaking to about 5.1 million at the height of the hungry season between January and March 2009," FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission (CFSAM) to Zimbabwe said.

Zimbabwe's population is estimated at about 12 million people, but does not take into account unofficial estimates that more than three million people have left the country in recent years to escape economic and political hardships.

The FAO/WFP report attributed the poor harvest to a second consecutive year of "adverse weather, lack of timely availability of [agricultural] inputs and severe economic constraints in Zimbabwe [that)] have induced hardship and food insecurity among both rural and urban populations."

The prospect of another year of stressed food supplies comes amid severe political instability that has seen widespread reports of violence, with more than 60 deaths and the displacement of thousands since March and the run-up to voting in the second round presidential poll on 27 June.

In the first round election on 29 March, President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF lost control of parliament for the first time since independence in 1980. Mugabe was also second to the opposition's Movement for Democratic Change leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, although neither candidate secured the 50 percent plus one vote required for an outright first round win.

In May, the government suspended humanitarian operations, including feeding schemes, after it accused nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) of "political activity."

World Vision's Vice President for the Africa Region, Professor Wilfred Mlay, has appealed to the government to permit delivery of basic humanitarian assistance by immediately reversing its decision to suspend the operations of NGOs - who act as the local partners of international aid agencies.

"As a child-focused organisation, we are particularly concerned for the close to 400,000 children we would have assisted this month through our ongoing relief and development work. We hold grave concerns for the 1.6 million orphans and vulnerable children across the country who will now not receive critical assistance from humanitarian agencies operating in the country," Mlay said in a statement.

Decline of agriculture

The FAO/WFP report said Zimbabwe produced about 575,000 tonnes from its main maize harvest in 2008, "some 28 percent lower than the production in 2007 (using the CFSAM estimate of 800,000mt) which in itself was some 44 percent below 2006 government estimate."

"The Mission estimates the total domestic cereal availability for 2008/09 marketing year at 848,000mt, about 40 percent below last year’s domestic supply. This includes a forecast production of winter wheat and additional production of maize from winter/early, peri-urban/urban and seed crops," the report said.

''The newly settled farmers cultivate only about half of the prime land allocated to them owing to shortages of tractor/draught power, fuel, and investment in infrastructure/improvements, and absenteeism on the part of some new settler beneficiaries''

Since 2000, when Mugabe introduced the Fast Track Land Reform Programme, which saw more than 4,000 white-owned commercial farms redistributed to landless blacks, agricultural production has declined.

"The newly settled farmers cultivate only about half of the prime land allocated to them owing to shortages of tractor/draught power, fuel, and investment in infrastructure/improvements, and absenteeism on the part of some new settler beneficiaries. The large-scale commercial sector now produces less than one-tenth of the maize that it produced in the 1990s," the reports said.

However, commercial farmers were not the dominant producers of maize; government price controls on the staple saw large-scale farmers opt to produce cash crops, such as tobacco and paprika, all part of a buoyant agriculture industry. 

"The maize yields of the communal farmers who used to produce the bulk of the crop in the country have also reduced to one-fourth in about 10 years due to the loss of their symbiotic relationship with former large scale commercial agricultural sector and a demise of healthy agro-input industries.

"With the total utilisation of cereals at about 2.080 million tonnes including 1.875 million tonnes for direct human consumption for the projected population of 11.865 million tonnes, the resulting cereal import requirement is estimated at 1.232 million tonnes, of which the maize deficit accounts for about one million tonnes," the report said.

The maize shortfall comes on the back of Zimbabwe's economic meltdown, which is seeing unofficial inflation rates of more than 1 million percent, and shortages of fuel, electricity and foreign currency commonplace.

"Given the acute shortage of foreign currency, the dwindling export base, and high prices of maize in the region and internationally, the Mission estimates that total commercial cereal imports could be about 850,000mt, leaving an uncovered deficit of about 380,000mt of maize," the report said.

"The market availability of cereals for households that have purchasing power will be crucial to avoid more people becoming food insecure due to scarcity and higher food prices that could result from such scarcity. In view of the [state-owned] Grain Marketing Board's limited capacity, the Mission further recommends that trading in cereals should be opened up to private traders to ensure that cereals can be imported and moved quickly to areas of need," the report said.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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