JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - With grain stores dwindling, the scourge of HIV/AIDS decimating an already weakened population and farmers fearing another grim harvest, the food crisis in southern Africa has worsened and now threatens more than 14 million people, United Nations officials announced yesterday.
James T. Morris, the U.N. special envoy for humanitarian needs, said that a new assessment had found 14.4 million people in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland are in dire need of food assistance - up from previous estimates of 12.8 million.
"The intensity of the crisis is increasing faster than we ever expected," Morris said at the end of a two-week visit to the six affected southern African countries. "We have come back from this trip with a new sense of urgency. The crisis is of extraordinary proportions."
Unable to afford the limited supplies of corn - the staple food in southern Africa - many poor families have been left to forage for roots, berries and leaves. Children across the region reportedly have been dropping out of school or collapsing in the middle of class because they have not eaten, aid workers say. Prospects for next year's harvest are bleak because many farmers lack seeds and fertilizer for the planting season set to begin in the next few weeks.
Many families sold their belongings months ago to pay for food and don't have the tools and animals to farm or goods to hawk for the lean days ahead, aid officials said.
"We went into houses where people just don't have anything. Just nothing," said Judith Lewis, the World Food Program's regional director.
The threat of mass hunger is being blamed on a deadly mix of floods, drought and government mismanagement. Making matters worse is the AIDS pandemic - which infects from 12 percent to 36 percent of the population in the six countries. Combined with the malnutrition and grinding poverty that the region experiences even during good harvest, southern Africa has become home to the "largest humanitarian crisis in the world today," Morris said.
"This is a very, very different crisis than anything we've seen before - HIV/AIDS is laying siege to entire communities, decimating the work force and putting an even heavier strain on already overburdened and weak health care systems," Morris said.
The World Food Program has received pledges of money and food for about a third of the $507 million aid it needs to stave off this crisis. Pledges for another third are under negotiations. But U.N. officials fear they may need to ask for more because of the additional people found to be at risk.
"It's going to take the most incredible, generous, coordinated response of the countries, the governments, the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], the U.N. agencies, the private sector imaginable to work out of this situation," Morris said.
According to the new assessment, all six countries have more people at risk of starvation. Most of the increased need is in Zimbabwe and Zambia. In Zimbabwe, the number of people in need climbed to 6.7 million - half the country's population - from 6 million. In Zambia, an additional 500,000 people are at risk, raising the total to 2.9 million, or about a quarter of the population.
Zimbabwe's food crisis is being partly blamed on President Robert G. Mugabe's seizure of white-owned farmland for redistribution to landless blacks. Critics say the often-violent land reform effort has thrown the nation's once thriving agriculture industry and economy into chaos. But Mugabe's government has blamed the food shortages on drought and defends its land redistribution program as correcting the historic imbalances of colonialism.
U.N. officials expect that no matter what the weather, Zimbabwe, once considered the breadbasket of Africa, will need food assistance for years to come.
Opposition party leaders in Zimbabwe have accused the government of withholding food aid from opposition party supporters. But Morris said he has underscored in meetings with Mugabe that the World Food Program would not tolerate the use of food as a political weapon.
In Zambia, officials are refusing to accept U.S. donations of genetically modified grain until government scientists assess if the grain poses any health risks. The United States, by far the largest donor of food aid, has urged Zambia to accept the grain, saying that it is safe and widely consumed in America.
The other five countries at risk have all agreed to accept the genetically modified grain.