Concern warns of major famine in southern Africa


Southern Africa is facing its worst famine in living memory unless there is immediate international action, the aid agency Concern has warned.

"We're going to see a famine of huge proportions and we're going to see people dying in huge numbers by the end of September, if nothing is done," said Father Jack Finucane, who has over three decades' experience of dealing with African emergencies.

It would be too late to wait for "the CNN moment" when television cameras start taking picture of people dying of starvation, he said. "In fact, some believe that people will die in a famine no matter what we do now."

Over 20 million people are affected by the current food shortages. Half are in Zimbabwe, four million apiece in Zambia and Angola and 3.2 million in Malawi.

Father Finucane, who has just returned from Zimbabwe, says only massive intervention now, with large-scale delivery of food aid, will prevent catastrophe on the scale of the 1984 Ethiopian famine, or Somalia in 1991-92.

He pointed out that the Ethiopian famine, which killed over one million people, developed from a shortage of 1.2 million tons of grain. However, the shortfall in grain supplies in southern Africa today amounts to over four million tons.

There are many reasons for the looming catastrophe. Erratic weather conditions led to a poor harvest last year and severe drought has damaged this year's harvest. Hungry farmers harvested this year's crop prematurely, leaving them with no food this year.

On top of this, the region has some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world. In Zimbabwe, for example, the official rate of infection is 34 per cent but most observers believe the rate is closer to one in two adults. This means that many farms have no labour to sow and reap crops.

Father Finucane said Zimbabwe was "almost a basket case now". Traditionally, famine in Africa was linked to war-torn countries such as Ethiopia and Sierre Leone, whereas Zimbabwe was regarded as prosperous and well-developed.

"But it's horrendous, what's happening now. The economy is in a downward spiral, mines are closing, manufacturing is in decline and tourism has almost completely collapsed," Father Finucane said. Aid donors are unwilling to commit funds because of the poor human-rights record of the regime under President Robert Mugabe.

Concern's chief executive, Mr Tom Arnold, has just returned from Malawi, where he says the situation could deteriorate very quickly unless help arrives. "The international community needs to recognise that, potentially, this is the largest humanitarian problem/disaster the world has faced for some time."

The agency, which has raised €1.5 million this year in Britain and Ireland for relief in Malawi, is now extending its appeal to Zimbabwe. Having applied to work in the country, it expects to be able to begin operations in June.