Calamity hiding behind calm in southern Africa


Southern Africa is edging towards famine, experts fear. Declan Walsh reports on a region in deep crisis

The calm of southern Africa belies the calamity to come. In Zimbabwe, the crops have been harvested and many people are eating. On the side of Malawi's smooth, tarmacked roads, rows of neatly stacked tomatoes and potatoes are on sale.

There are none of the familiar images associated with famine: no noisy feeding camps filled with wailing babies, no dusty carcasses of starved animals, very few stick people with fish-bowl eyes.

But as sure as an ocean liner sailing silently towards a hidden iceberg, southern Africa is headed for famine. It could be the first humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century, as bad as anything seen before in Sudan, Somalia or Ethiopia.

From the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, seven countries are in the grip of a food crisis. Bad weather - floods, drought, even frost - sparked the shortages. Bad politics made them much worse.

In Zambia, women are turning to prostitution and families are eating poisonous plants to fend off the gnawing hunger. Zimbabwe's maize crop has almost collapsed because of President Robert Mugabe's controversial land policy.

The last few months has seen a brief respite as the annual harvest is brought in, but while normally that food would last until December, this year it could be gone as early as August.

According to the UN World Food Programme, up to 13 million people in six countries - Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland - will be at risk of starvation in a matter of months. A further one million are suffering in Angola, where the end of war has exposed mass starvation in remote areas.

Aid workers scrambling to the region see alarming parallels with Ethiopia's biblical famine of 1984. "It's just the same," said Jack Finucane of Concern, who recently returned to Ireland from Zimbabwe. "In two or three months time, people will be not just hungry but dying of starvation. It is almost too late."

Irish agencies are preparing for the worst. Goal, Trocaire and Concern are all working in Malawi, where several thousand people have already perished.

Before the harvest came, desperate villagers ate banana leaves, poisonous roots and even sawdust to fend off the hunger. The tension also ripped into the social fabric. Food thieves were treated mercilessly: some had their hands or feet chopped off, others were simply murdered.

Like Zambia or Zimbabwe now, Malawi does not have the air of a country in crisis, but appearances are deceptive. Several thousand people have already died, usually in remote villages miles off the main roads, but as the larder empties later this summer, that situation is liable to change very quickly. Hunger will tip over into famine.

This is not southern Africa's first food crisis. Ten years ago, a sharp drought left 18 million people hungry. International aid poured in and disaster was averted. This time, however, the causes and possible solutions have become much more complicated.

Politics have played the most pernicious role in Zimbabwe. Last week President Robert Mugabe side-stepped an EU travel ban by attending the World Food Summit in Rome, claiming the immunity afforded to heads of state visiting UN meetings.

Despite his apparent concern for the hungry, President Mugabe's policies have demonstrably pushed an estimated six million Zimbabweans - almost half the population - towards starvation.

The controversial policy of seizing white-owned farms for redistribution to landless blacks, as well as drought, has caused maize yields to slump by 77 per cent since 1999. Yet while the government lacks the foreign currency to buy substitute food from other countries, it refuses to allow commercial traders to import the grain.

In general, donors have responded sluggishly to Zimbabwe's plight. One reason is the concern that aid will be manipulated for political purposes. There have already been several reports that supporters of the Zanu-PF ruling party are preventing food aid from reaching opposition supporters.

Only last Wednesday, war veterans forced the closure of a Catholic church feeding centre serving 40,000 children in the western district of Binga.

According to Father Tom McQuillen, the police refused to intervene. "Their orders are that we are to stop feeding. We received nothing in writing," he told the UN information service.

In Malawi, corruption is the issue. Last year the government sold off the entire emergency food reserve of 167,000 tonnes of maize; now donors are demanding to know where the money went.

Political intervention in these countries is as important as food aid, argue Irish aid agencies lobbying for a co-ordinated EU response at next week's Seville summit.

"Donors are playing tough and looking for concessions," said Concern's chief executive Tom Arnold, referring to Zimbabwe, "but we can't wait for that to happen. People's lives are at stake."

If politics are hobbling the international response, the HIV/AIDS pandemic is crippling individuals' ability to cope. The affected countries suffer from some of the highest HIV-infection rates in the world, often as many as one in three adults.

"Very often you find husbands and wives ill or dead so the grandparents are looking after the children, but they have no income to feed them," said Dr Mary McLoughlin, who is setting up a Goal feeding programme in Malawi.

For now, southern Africa needs food, but the next most precious commodity is time. A food crisis in August or September is sure and predictable, aid workers say. Only a concerted political and humanitarian response now will help avoid the sort of horrors seen in Ethiopia in 1984.