31 January 2016

Africa: Hunger in Southern Africa

editorial

THE World Food Programme's warning the other day (WFP), that 14 million people face hunger in southern Africa should awaken the authorities to take necessary action to avert a looming catastrophe. Certainly, the number of people facing hunger could be higher than what is stated and massive investment in agriculture is necessary to ensure food security, while adopting measures to boost yield under changing climatic condition.

Though, food scarcity characterises the entire sub-Saharan Africa due to low investment in agriculture, drought-induced famine is more prevalent in the southern Africa sub-region. In all, only a proactive and well-coordinated effort on food production can avert a potential human tragedy that could make Africa a basket case all over again.

The WFP released a statement in which it raised the alarm that the number of people without enough food is likely to rise in 2016 as drought worsens through the region. The worst affected countries include Malawi, with 2.8 million people facing hunger; Madagascar (about 1.9 million) and Zimbabwe (1.5 million). Last year's harvest in Zimbabwe reportedly reduced by half compared to the previous year due to massive crop failure. The government of Lesotho declared a drought emergency as some 600,000 people, which is one-third of the population faced hunger due to poor harvest. Consequently, food prices across the entire sub-region have risen sharply.

The WFP then expressed deep concern after a visit to southern Zambia, that small holder farmers are worst hit, as they won't be able to harvest enough food to feed their families through the year, let alone sell anything to cover school fees and other necessities. Certainly, the populations in the affected countries face a precarious situation that demands urgent intervention.

The recurrent drought and food scarcity betrayed the effort of the countries in southern Africa to manage the available water resources in a manner that ensures adequate food production over other demands. The water resources of southern Africa are managed through a well thought- out framework by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the impact of persistent drought is given adequate attention under the SADC action plan.

Remarkably, the reduced food production in the region is due to natural factors attributed to the episodic El-Nino weather phenomenon, characterized by prolonged warming that compounds the region's drought. Developing countries bordering the Indian Ocean that depend on agriculture are mostly affected. El-Nino causes global changes in temperature and rainfall. Like other natural climatic phenomena, what is needed is a proactive framework to counter the impacts, especially on food production. Given that drought is the single most causative factor of low crop yield, there ought to be a sub-regional agenda to address the water issue. Though, the SADC countries appear to have done by the diligent management of their water resources, their efforts have sometimes come short.

Unfortunately, the desire to boost food production under large commercial farms in most of the countries has strained the region's water systems. The Rivers Zambezi, Limpopo and Save, among others, which are shared waters, are among the best managed drainage basins in Africa but too much demand on the water systems by the riparian countries has led to stress on the waters. Also, apart from agriculture, the rivers provide water for industries, hydro-power production, mining and tourism.

Besides, human activities such the discharge of industrial wastes, as is the case in the Kafue River in Zambia, limits accessibility to quality of water, reducing its availability for different uses. While the pollution of water could be reversed by adopting cleaner methods of industrial production, the construction of several hydro power stations on most of the rivers, inevitably, reduces the quantity of water available to the population living downstream. This situation may be irreversible, and the stress on the water system is permanent.

The situation in southern Africa is therefore a wake-up call on Nigeria and the entire West African countries sharing both the Lake Chad and River Niger. Whereas the Lake Chad has virtually dried up with serious adverse impacts on ecology and agriculture, the River Niger still has enormous water that could be utilized to boost food production if properly managed. The Niger Basin Authority should ensure that the waters are judiciously used to serve the basin countries.

Caution should be exercised in the way and manner dams are constructed by the various countries along the course of the Niger. Having failed to safeguard the Lake Chad, Nigeria should see the River Niger from the point of national security and with her teeming population; Nigeria should avoid toying with the issue of food security.

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