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More gloom ahead for SADCís growling stomachs

A field of maize in Gabane in December 2015, Assessments are finding widespread crop failure
Assessment teams in the 12 SADC countries pushed to hunger by the El Nino climate phenomenon are expected to announce that the region is facing its worst food situation ever, when they meet in Johannesburg next month. This week, Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI, learnt that SADC is considering its first global food appeal in 14 years

The last time SADC launched a global appeal for humanitarian assistance, Malawian president, Bakili Muluzi of Malawi was SADC chair and he led the quest for $611 million in aid, after El Nino decimated the 2001-2002 farming season.

By the time SADC and the UN jointly launched the appeal in July 2002, at least 15.2 million regional citizens had been pushed to the edge of starvation by El Nino, a cyclical climate phenomenon associated with rain deficits, heatwaves and flooding.

Five SADC countries, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, were the worst affected and the focal point of the appeal.

President Ian Khama faces an even sterner challenge. By the last count, at least 27 million SADC citizens face hunger, with 11 countries affected by El Nino and four of those already having declared national drought disasters.

These four, Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe have already asked for international assistance.

Technocrats are tight-lipped about the size of the intervention the region will require, but a UN agency last week estimated between $346m and $518m.  Outside of international assistance, SADC states will have to dig into their coffers for up to $4 billion.

As SADC chair, Khama will be expected to not only announce the humanitarian appeal, but also lead it, seeking out partnerships and charming donors into parting with funds to keep the wolves at bay in the region.

Muluzi had mixed success 14 years ago, with response to the $611 million appeal largely slow.  The USA topped the donor list, followed by the UK, Japan Germany, Netherlands and Sweden.

Khama enjoys amicable relationships with most of these countries and backed by a penchant for social programmes, the SADC chair is expected to be a strong ambassador for the region’s fundraising aspirations. According to SADC’s food, agriculture and natural resources director, the next few weeks are critical in accurately gauging the levels of the hungry in the region and the intervention needed.

Margaret Nyirenda explained that the 27 million figure quoted for SADC’s hungry was from estimates conducted last year.  Most member states are finalising their assessments from the 2015-2016 harvest and these will be presented to senior officials of the SADC states. Botswana kicked-off its annual drought assessment earlier than usual this year and officials are expected to hand in a dire report to Khama, who statutorily declares the drought.

“We don’t yet have figures for the food insecure in the region, but we know it is very high,” she said.

“We have teams right now in the field working on those figures.  At the meeting in June, we will also know what’s in the silos and grain reserves and how much imports are needed.

“That figure of 27 million was the assessment done last year between May and June.”

Nyirenda said after the 2014-2015 farming season, four SADC states were affected by El Nino. 

After the 2015-2016 season, the numbers affected rose to 12.

“We expect the figures to rise significantly because even if countries tried to use the late rains to boost winter crops like wheat, it would not have been enough,” she said.

“We will need to import a lot more.”

The late rains at least helped South Africa, the region’s breadbasket, which has now reduced the amount of maize it needs to import this year.  At the beginning of the year, South Africa expected to import six million tonnes of white and yellow maize, following a disastrous season.

“Thanks to the rains that began in January, our estimates show that we will be able to produce 7.4 million tonnes and we will be short by about 4.8 million tonnes,” the country’s agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister, Senzeni Zokwana told the SADC special seminar on food security in Gaborone this week.

Botswana had no such luck. Rains across the country arrived late, delaying planting, while those who had planted before, watched as their tender plants wilted under at least six successive heatwaves countrywide.

As November 2015 wore on without significant rain, many farmers gave up on planting.  The poor rains and heatwaves equally affected livestock farmers, who suffered from lack of water and pasture.

Across the region, stories of hunger and lack abound, in the wake of El Nino.  UN figures released last week estimate that nearly 20 percent of SADC’s rural population numbering 181 million is facing hunger.

Botswana and South Africa traditionally self-finance their drought relief operations, but the rest of the region is in trouble.

“We are in a disaster, but this is an opportunity for the private sector to come in,” Nyirenda said. “As the agencies bring funds in, they would want to buy from within the region. There are opportunities for the private sector, which also employs our citizens, to fill the gap.”

Nyirenda and her team already have estimates of the food insecure as well as the possible size of the humanitarian effort that will be required. 

However, both figures are closely held secrets, to be passed through official channels that lead to the SADC chair.

Khama may or may not launch an international appeal and if he does, he has the liberty to launch it before, after or during the June meeting.

All eyes are on Khama, who faces the sternest test of chairmanship since taking over last August.  Food is among the top three on his to-do list.

“This (meeting) is the first of three I have called for on issues of urgency in the region,” he said, breaking from his speech at the special seminar.

“The next will be in June, looking at water development, then the energy crisis.”

Khama will be hoping he leaves the three challenges resolved and his legacy cemented, when he vacates the chairmanship in August.




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