Johannesburg — Working with government and partners, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is scaling up efforts to deliver food assistance to more than 3.5 million people in drought-hit areas of southern Africa. Among the worst affected countries are Malawi, Zimbabwe and Lesotho.
Communities already struggling to feed their families are now bracing for the onset of the so-called hunger season that traditionally lasts from December until harvest time in March.
"Large numbers of smallholder farmers and their families are in the grip of what is set to be one of the harshest hunger seasons of recent years," says Brenda Barton, WFP Deputy Regional Director for Southern Africa.
"With the help of governments, donors and regional organisations, we're mobilising resources to help the most vulnerable, not only with food distributions but also with innovative solutions like cash transfers via mobile phones so people can buy their own food."
Erratic rainfall during the last planting season means harvests in many areas have not been sufficient to sustain the nutritional needs of farming communities this year and, even where food is available in local markets, it is often too expensive for the poorest households.
Southern Malawi, southern Zimbabwe, and the southern highlands of Lesotho face particularly severe food shortages, while the prices of staples like maize on local markets are unseasonably high.
Maize prices have increased 60 percent in the markets of Lesotho since the start of the year. In Malawi, maize prices have risen nearly 80 percent since this time last year.
WFP is distributing food to more than 1.8 million people living in rural communities across southern Malawi. The Malawi government has donated 25,000 metric tons of maize from its Strategic Grain Reserve and has announced plans to release a further 47,500 tons.
Other donors like UKAID, USAID and the Kingdom of Norway are also supporting the operation. In addition, WFP and partners have just launched an innovative programme to transfer cash via mobile phones to more than 100,000 people, allowing them to buy food on local markets in southern and central parts of the country. The current shortfall for WFP's Malawi drought relief operation is US$14 million.
Some 1.6 million vulnerable people - one in five of the rural population - are facing food shortages in Zimbabwe. While most of these are being assisted through food distributions, some 300,000 people are receiving cash to enable them buy their own cereals from local markets.
The Government is finalizing a sizeable donation of maize from the Strategic Grain Reserve to be used for a joint humanitarian response. The remaining cereals being distributed by WFP have been procured in the region.
More than 200,000 people in farming communities in the southern highlands of Lesotho are receiving food from WFP.
At the same time, WFP is working with the Government and other UN agencies to find longer-term solutions to the food crisis caused by two consecutive years of crop failures. The current shortfall for WFP's Lesotho emergency operation is US$4 million.