SW Radio Africa (London)

Zimbabwe: UN Cuts Food Aid, as Widespread Starvation Takes Hold

As millions of Zimbabweans fight a daily battle against hunger, malnutrition and disease, and as the need for humanitarian assistance daily grows, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said this week it has been forced to cut its life-saving food rations.

The UN has predicted that up to 5 million people will face starvation as soon as January, because of widespread food shortages and the devastating effect of the crash of the local currency. The government, in a shocking act of cruelty, only partially lifted a ban on crucial foreign aid recently and the trickle of food aid that has returned to the country means countless numbers of men, women and children have already died from lack of food. The true number of deaths may never be known.

The food crisis is affecting all sectors of life, and even boarding schools across the country have been forced to shut their doors early because there is no food to give students. Schools were scheduled to shut down for the festive season in early December but authorities at some boarding schools last Friday ordered all Form one, two, three and five students out of school, citing the overwhelming food crisis. Only students writing their 'O' and 'A' level examinations have remained, but it unclear what they are being fed, if they are being fed at all.

The lives of countless more people now hang in the balance after the WFP announced on Tuesday that it is facing a serious funding crisis and it has already been forced to reduce its aid.

"WFP still requires US$140 million to fund its operations in Zimbabwe until the end of March 2009 - with a shortfall of approximately 145,000 tons of food, including 110,000 metric tons of cereals and 35,000 metric tons of other food commodities," the agency said in an update detailing its first month of large-scale distributions in October.

A WFP spokesman, Richard Lee explained on Wednesday that there is "currently no food in the pipeline for distributions in January and February", a period when the food crisis is set to reach its peak and when almost half the population will need urgent food assistance.

The WFP said it aims in November to distribute around 46,000 tons of food to more than 3.3 million people under the "vulnerable group" feeding programme and around 600,000 under the safety net programmes, but the organisation said it will not be able to provide every beneficiary with a full food basket. The November cereal ration has been cut from 12 kilograms to 10 kilograms per person per month and the pulse ration from 1.8 kilograms to one kilogram for all "vulnerable group" beneficiaries and for people receiving take-home rations under the safety net programmes.

"These cuts will allow WFP to stretch its available resources as far as possible but they will leave greater numbers more malnourished and more susceptible to disease," Lee explained, saying the group is very concerned by the numbers that will be left hungry. He added that the group is confident it can "reach and provide aid for the predicted numbers of Zimbabweans next year" but said this will depend of receiving sufficient donations to make up the current shortfall.

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