Johannesburg — The twin scourges of another prolonged dry spell and an invasive crop-eating worm are set to sharply curtail harvests across southern Africa, driving millions of people – most of them children – into severe hunger, warns the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
The warning follows an alert by regional food security experts that "erratic rainfall, high temperatures and persistent Fall Army Worm infestation are likely to have far-reaching consequences on access to adequate food and nutrition" over the next 12-15 months.
The alert, by officials from the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET), UN agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), listed Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Zambia and South Africa as the worst-affected countries.
The dry spell, which started in October, has caused crops to wilt. Pasture has also suffered, threatening the survival of livestock herds.
Even if there is above-average rainfall over coming months, much of the damage to crops is irreversible.
"Given that the region has barely emerged from three years of very damaging El Niño -induced drought, this is a particularly cruel blow", says Brian Bogart, WFP's Regional Programme Advisor. "But it shows how important it is to address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition in the face of changing climatic conditions".
There are now fears for another rise in the number of people in the region needing emergency food and nutrition assistance – this fell from a peak of 40 million during the 2014-2016 El Niño crisis to 26 million last year.
The humanitarian community is now working with governments, SADC and other partners to assess the extent of the damage and its likely impact on those most at risk in the region.
* WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide, delivering food assistance in emergencies and working with communities to improve nutrition and build resilience. Each year, WFP assists some 80 million people in around 80 countries.