13 million hungry in Africa


"What we can do is lessen the negative effects. The crisis can't be averted. It's already here"

—Bruce Campbell-Janz

Thirteen million people could starve in southern Africa by December if food aid does not increase, according to relief leaders.

Famine threatens at least six southern African countries -- Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland.

At least 13 million people are in need of food assistance -- even more if rains don't come, said Bruce Campbell-Janz, relief project manager for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC).

The situation is already so serious there is no doubt lives will be lost to hunger, he said. "But it's going to loom much larger without appropriate large-scale response. What we can do is lessen the negative effects. The crisis can't be averted. It's already here."

Physical effects of hunger are already burdening people, said the Rev. Morais Quissico, United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) disaster relief coordinator in Mozambique. "People get weaker and become vulnerable to diseases such as malaria, cholera, diarrhea, anemia, etc., as a result of eating some bush foods that are not appropriate for humans. They don't get food from their farms despite cultivating the land.

"The majority of the people in these remote rural areas do not have any other source of survival other than cultivating the land. From land cultivation they get food, not only to eat at home, but also to sell, and get some money for other necessities."

Allan Bacon of The Salvation Army called the situation "a developing famine."

Though many groups have been responding to the growing crisis for some time, the wider public is just becoming "aware of the magnitude of the problem," Cambell-Janz added, "it's just creeping into the media now."

The food shortage -- which could be Africa's worst in more than a decade -- has been directly caused by two consecutive years of localized droughts or flooding, questionable government decisions, and political unrest.

"If Malawi hadn't sold off its entire grain reserve last year it would not be as grave," said Campbell-Janz.

The deciding negative factor is the AIDS crisis, which has already killed many agricultural workers. Many people are unable to be productive because they are sick themselves, or they are caring for sick family members or for the millions of children left without parents in the wake of the AIDS epidemic.

In some southern African countries, 25 percent of the population has AIDS.

"The total number of people affected by drought was a bit higher in the early 1990s but the AIDS crisis has made the current situation much, much worse," said Campbell-Janz.

Another factor is the heavy reliance on a particular food crop, he added. "For example, there is very heavy maize dominance and diet preference in Malawi. This makes it such that if there is a bad growing season for maize, you are automatically in serious trouble in terms of people being able to eat and get enough calories."

Food shipments -- more than 6,000 tons -- are already en route from U.S. and Canadian-based relief groups, many of which are members of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. The shipments will take about 12 weeks to arrive at warehouses in southern Africa, said Campbell-Janz. The emergency food will be distributed over a period of six months beginning in October.

"They can probably cope until this arrives in the country," said Bacon, adding that relief groups are trying to be "on the proactive side."

The food will be specifically distributed some of the most vulnerable families, including those headed by women or children.

What can people in the U.S. do? They can make a contribution to a group that's working in the area, said relief leaders. "There are a lot of groups responding," said Campbell-Janz.

In addition to cash contributions there is "a need for people to inform themselves about the situation," he added.

The crisis is so large that no single group can address it. Instead, relief leaders agreed, there must be a cohesive international response.

The United Nations Monday launched an appeal for $507 million in food aid for the region. There is a "role to play to lobby the government to a certain degree," said Campbell-Janz, because the U.S. government could potentially increase its response in reaction to "pressure from the public."

Bacon agreed: "The only way to avert this is for large donors to come on board at a government level," calling the decision a matter of "political will." Individual relief groups "can respond but we don't have the capacity to respond in magnitude. And it's not that food isn't available."

Bacon suggested one way to exert political pressure is to participate in a campaign of letters offered periodically by the faith-based group Bread for the World, headquartered in Washington, DC. "Something in excess of 200,000 letters go to Congress," he said.

Bread for the World spokesperson Scott Rowson echoed Bacon's thoughts, saying that, though there is a "major role for churches and charities and relief groups in Africa. We've got to get our government to do its part as well by applying pressure to Congress and the Administration to make quality decisions for hungry and poor people."

With enough emergency food aid, at least some groups could start focusing on long-term community development issues, such as increasing water retention among drought-stricken communities. "There needs to be serious reflection on how we can ensure the next growing season works better," said Campbell-Janz.

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