UN warns Ebola could infect 10,000 people per week—unless we act now

Fighting off starvation in Zimbabwe

By Oxfam

The 10,000 people of the Seke Communal Lands south of Harare, Zimbabwe have no more corn—their staple food source. Many families are almost entirely without food other than simple green vegetables. In late April, President Mugabe declared a state of disaster to enact special measures to deliver food aid to those most desperate.

The people of Seke Communal Lands, like most residents of Zimbabwe and neighboring countries, are growing desperate. People scavenge for leftover food at the local boarding schools. Among the most vulnerable are the approximately 1,500 orphans and families living in Seke whose members have HIV/AIDS. (According to UNAIDS, one in four adults in Zimbabwe is said to be infected with the virus.)

In urban centers, lines for ground corn at supermarkets wind their way around whole blocks and people often wait several days before getting any corn. Although there are no reports of mass starvation yet, there have been several cases of individual deaths from starvation. It only may be a matter of time before the numbers swell. The cases of malnutrition among children under 5-years-old have risen sharply in recent months.

Children in rural schools have fainted in class after going for days without food. No one has the strength to participate in sporting activities, so many have been canceled.

April is normally harvest time in Zimbabwe, but it means little to most peasant farmers this year. Their crops barely appeared before wilting and shriveling in a land without rain for many months.

This year's drought comes hard on the heels of last year's poor harvest, when drought was followed by torrential rains that carried away topsoil. The harvest was thin then, and no additional crops are expected until April 2003.

In normal times, Zimbabwe consumes 2 million tons of corn a year. The drought this year, described as the worst in 50 years by local farmers, has reduced that amount to only 750,000 tons. The country used to export grain and their harvests were very successful. Now, inflation is at 113 percent and the government will have to depend on foreign aid to buy food imports.

Political turmoil limits aid

To compound the problems, Zimbabwe is bereft of friends in the international community who might come to its aid. The current food crisis is largely considered self-inflicted because the government's land reform program has severely disrupted production on commercial farms. Some districts report that the government is refusing aid to members of the political opposition who challenged President Mugabe in recent elections.

Aid agencies have begun to bring in food under the World Food Program (WFP), but so far they cannot cope with the crisis. To date, the U.S. Government (USG) has provided more than $49.5 million in emergency humanitarian assistance. In past droughts in Zimbabwe, only the most vulnerable needed assistance because there were enough grain reserves for the rest. Today, there is little or no maize meal available, even for those with the money to pay for it.

Oxfam America's response to the crisis

A large and highly effective Oxfam partner, the Association of Women's Clubs (AWC), recently began an assessment of people's food needs, particularly of vulnerable women and children. The AWC has more than 60,000 members around the country. They have put in an initial request for 6,000 tons of maize to supplement the diets of their members' communities until October 2002. Additional funding is essential to provide food after October for what is expected to be a far larger portion of the population in need.

To arrest the crisis this year, seeds and fertilizers must also be distributed before the next planting season in October. Without these seeds, there will be no crop next April either, and the people will continue to be dependent on external aid.

Zimbabwe's food crisis could well turn into a major humanitarian disaster without international support and a willingness to separate the needs of the people from the political problems dogging the nation. Despite the government's "anti-imperialism" rhetoric, it faces a crisis of a magnitude that can only be solved through international solidarity. The current stand-off between the government of Zimbabwe and international donors should not be allowed to prevent the provision of food assistance, as it is the ordinary people who are bearing the brunt of the crisis.