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Food crisis looms in Zimbabwe

2.2 million Zimbabweans are at risk of hunger
2.2 million Zimbabweans are at risk of hunger

The United Nations predicts a quarter of Zimbabwe’s rural population will be in need of food aid by early next year.

The United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) is warning of a “looming food crisis” in Zimbabwe. WFP analysts estimate that around 2.2 million Zimbabweans, or one in four of the rural population, will be at risk of hunger over the next six months. This period, running through the end of the year and into early 2014, is the pre-harvest or lean season and food stocks from this year’s harvest are not expected to see families through it.

According to a recent article in the Guardian, the extent of the predicted hunger, which will involve the highest number of Zimbabweans since 2009 when more than half the population required food support, has been revealed in the government’s rural livelihoods report. This is compiled with the assistance of the UN and other partners. A spokesperson for the WFP explained that in many districts, particularly in the south, farmers have harvested very little and many households are “already trying to stretch out their dwindling food stocks”.

The predictions will come as a blow to the newly-elected government of Robert Mugabe, whose Zanu PF party initiated widescale redistribution of land back in 2000. This led to the creation of a large number of small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe. According to one local economist, many of these farmers grow crops such as tobacco, rather than food for domestic consumption. A large number of smallholder farmers also concentrate on livestock, rather than cereal production.

Proponents of the government say that the current shortages are due to low rainfall, since Zimbabwe’s maize producers rely on rain-fed irrigation. They also argue that new farmers typically need around two decades to reach their maximum production, therefore farmers who received their land through the reforms of 2,000 are yet to see their highest yields.

Assessing the need

The UN’s World Food Programme will continue to monitor the situation in Zimbabwe, though it is a challenge to gauge food security levels across all rural areas. To gather data about people’s food situation, the WFP uses a process called Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping, which involves collecting information through on-the-ground, face-to-face interviews. But this process can be slow and expensive, and sometimes impractical when it requires reaching remote communities where access is limited by poor roads or weather conditions. The WFP is therefore trialling the use of messaging technology to gather data via people’s mobile phones. Currently, this is being tested in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the organisation hopes to extend pilots to other countries in the near future.