U.N. food agency says 14 million face hunger in southern Africa

The World Food Programme (WFP) has raised concern about food security in southern Africa where an estimated 14 million people are facing hunger following prolonged dry spells that led to a poor harvest last year. The weather condition is said to have been worsened by El Nino, a pattern which typically brings drier conditions to Southern Africa and wetter ones to East Africa.

GOKWE, ZIMBABWE (REUTERS) – About 14 million people face hunger in Southern Africa because of a drought that has been exacerbated by an El Nino weather pattern, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said on Monday (January 18).

The worst-affected country in the region is Malawi, where 2.8 million people, 16 percent of the population, are expected to go hungry, followed by the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar where almost 1.9 million are at risk, WFP said in a statement.

In Zimbabwe, 1.5 million people, more than 10 percent of the population, face hunger, WFP said.

WFP is looking to scale up its lean season food and cash-based assistance programmes in the worst-hit countries but faces critical funding challenges.

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson for the UN secretary-general addressed journalists in New York.

“The World Food Programme (WFP) says it is increasingly concerned about food security in southern Africa where an estimated 14 million people are facing hunger following prolonged dry spells that led to a poor harvest last year. It adds that the El Nino global weather event, which is leading to even worse drought across the region, is already affecting this year’s crop,” said Haq.

The drought has hit much of the region including the maize belt in South Africa, the continent’s most advanced economy and the top producer of the staple grain.

South Africa faces its worst drought in decades after 2015 was the driest calendar year since records began in 1904. Expectations of a dire crop this season could force the country to import up to 6 million tonnes of maize, over half of its consumption needs.

Maize prices in South Africa hit record highs on Monday, with the March contract for the white variety scaling a new peak of 5,106 rand ($304) a tonne, according to Thomson Reuters’ data.

In countries such as Malawi, much of the maize crop is produced by small-scale farmers, often just to feed their own families. The vast majority are utterly dependent on rainfall as they cannot afford irrigation systems.

The drought has been worsened by an exceptionally strong El Nino weather pattern, a warming of ocean surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific that occurs every few years with ripple effects around the globe, scientists say.

The agency says that one particularly worrying symptom of southern Africa’s vulnerability to food and nutrition security is the alarming rate of chronic malnutrition. Levels of stunting among children in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia are among the worst in the world.

“The number of people without enough food could rise significantly over coming months as the region moves deeper into the so-called lean season, the period before the April harvest when food and cash stocks become increasingly depleted,” said Haq.

El Nino events typically bring drier conditions to Southern Africa and wetter ones to East Africa. The dry, hot conditions are expected to persist until the start of the southern hemisphere autumn in April or May.

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