Zimbabwe: Zim's Humanitarian Crisis Reaches Breaking Point

Harare (file photo).

Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis has reached catastrophic levels with thousands of children in the country facing disease and death due to acute malnutrition. A recent report by the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on the right to food stated that Zimbabwe is hurtling towards "man-made starvation".

As the emergency unfolds, Zimbabwe is now rated among the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with 7, 7 million people--half the country's population--facing hunger. The country is now competing for resources with hardest hit countries globally, as a result of the El-Niño-induced drought. UN agencies are now scaling up drought assistance programmes to cater for the lean season (January to April). Our Senior Reporter Bridget Mananavire (BM) discussed with a senior representative of the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) the extent of the crisis and the scope of intervention.

BM: The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food raised concern on the high levels of malnutrition in children. How dire is this situation in Zimbabwe?

Unicef: In Zimbabwe, according to ZIMVAC conducted between June and August 2019 nearly 1 in 3 children under five are suffering from malnutrition, while 93% of children between six months and two years of age are not consuming the minimum acceptable diet, this means across the country about 34 000 children (or 3,6% of total children) are critically suffering from acute malnutrition. But there are pockets of the country where prevalence of malnutrition is worse. Eight of the 63 districts have acute malnutrition levels beyond 5% (mainly located in Manicaland, Masvingo, and Matabeleland North and Mashonaland West provinces).

From Unicef-supported assessments, the area with children most affected by acute malnutrition are in Harare, where there are over 7 000 expected cases and in eastern Zimbabwe (Manicaland) with over 13 000 expected cases.

Unicef is very concerned about cases of severe malnutrition because, if they are not treated, children are highly vulnerable to disease and death.

BM: What are you doing to reach out to these communities?

Unicef: Unicef is working and supporting the Ministry of Health and partners such as the Paediatric Association of Zimbabwe to provide life-saving and preventative treatment to nearly 650 000 children and women who are at risk of malnutrition through the supply of therapeutic food (RUTF), micro-nutrient and vitamin A supplementation and supporting critical nutrition screening and counselling services. We have also supported with training for diarrhoea case management. If people are not quickly treated for diarrhoea, they can quickly fall into malnutrition.

Unicef is also working to provide access to safe drinking water through the distribution of water treatment materials and rehabilitation of boreholes, springs and piped water schemes. Unicef is concerned and is working to provide urgent and vital assistance to ensure the survival and development of children.

BM: What kind of interventions are you making in rural schools in the country to ensure pupils do not go hungry?

Unicef: As the new school year starts, Unicef is closely monitoring learner and teacher attendance. Working closely with partners, Unicef has several ongoing interventions supporting the education sector across the country including procuring teaching and learning materials, disbursing the School Improvement Grant (SIG), and providing short-term school feeding to support disadvantaged schools to maintain their minimum functionalities and to keep children learning in a protective environment, while finding more longer term solutions through support to curriculum reform, water and sanitation in schools, school nutrition gardens, promotion of early learning and inclusive education and strengthening the education system capacity in Zimbabwe.

Provincial and district education offices across the country are also being supported through the provision of fuel to enable them to inspect, supervise and monitor schools, learner and teacher attendance and teaching and learning activities.

BM: What is your assessment of the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe?

Unicef: The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate. Climate change is exacerbating the prolonged drought, causing food and water insecurity, as well as large-scale electricity shortages across the country. Children and families are facing economic hardship due to hyperinflation which has also given rise to strikes and problems facing social sectors, including health and education.

While the risk of flooding and large-scale disease outbreaks continues to affect the population, parts of the country are still recovering from the impacts of Cyclone Idai from earlier last year.

BM: What challenges are you facing in reaching out to affected communities in the country?

Unicef: The needs are great, given that the social conditions and vulnerabilities of 7,7 million including the urban areas has significantly worsened. The affected communities are across over 55 districts including urban areas, stretching Unicef and partners logistics and operational capacities. Unicef and its partners require urgent humanitarian assistance to support its critical work for the survival and wellbeing of thousands of vulnerable children and women.

BM: What interventions have you launched in terms of healthcare, water and sanitation as well as food assistance?

Unicef: Unicef has many interventions, some include:

On health, Unicef is supporting the provision of services for maternal and neo-natal through Harare clinics, but more support is needed to scale up these critical interventions to reach nearly 1 million people including children and women across the country.

On nutrition, in addition to supporting treatment of children with malnutrition, Unicef is working with WFP (World Food Programme) and their partners to ensure all young children (six months to five years) are receiving supplementary food rations specially designed for their age and children are screened for malnutrition and treated if needed.

On WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), Unicef is working to provide access to safe drinking water, appropriate sanitation and hygiene to reduce the risks of drought and a cholera outbreak in known hotspots and to combat typhoid and common diarrheal disease epidemics. On education, Unicef is working closely with partners in providing resources to both learners and teachers and short-term school feeding to keep children learning in a protective environment, while finding more longer terms solutions through school nutrition gardens.

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