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Friday, 27 December, 2002, 09:16 GMT
Famine threat looms over Africa
A malnourished child at an Ethiopian feeding station
Famine stalks large swathes of Africa
Hilary Andersson

An estimated 38 million Africans face severe food shortages at the end of a year when the continent has been ravaged by drought and poor governance.

Southern Africa is worst hit, and thousands of miles away, millions of people in Ethiopia are also struggling to find daily food.

Across six southern African countries - Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho and Mozambique, huge populations have been unable to grow food this year because drought and has withered their crops, or because floods have drowned them.

Of these six countries Zimbabwe is the worst hit. It is estimated that almost seven out of 12 million Zimbabweans will soon need emergency food aid.

Currently international aid agencies do not even have sufficient food to feed the three million Zimbabweans they are targeting now.

A starving Ethiopian child
The weak are most at risk
In Zimbabwe the crisis is also partly manmade. President Robert Mugabe's controversial land redistribution programme has left the country's farming sector in tatters, with crops being produced at a fraction of their normal levels.

Every day there are queues for staples like bread, milk, sugar and oil. This in a nation that not long ago was a major tourist destination, and an example of a thriving African country.

The fear for countries like Zimbabwe is that thousands will starve to death soon if nothing is done.

In Angola that has already happened. There, in some villages entire sections of the population died earlier this year. Outside many villages there were mass graves.

Ravages of war

In Angola the starvation is entirely manmade. This was the year when the country's 27-year-old civil war ended.

Mother and child at a feeding station in Angola
Millions are facing food shortages
In the fierce fighting that brought the war to its climax the government smoked out the rebels by burning the villages, and destroying their crops.

In the process the government starved the rebels into submission, but they also starved their people too.

The aftershocks of this year's destroyed crop in Angola are still being felt. In some villages people are eating rats and bugs from the ground.

Creeping death

In therapeutic feeding centres for children, infants lie in rows, emaciated.

Starvation is a slow, excruciating way to die. Infections set in as the victims become too weak to fight them off.

A skeletal cow lies dead in the parched earth
The first sign of crisis is dying animals
In the hospitals and villages across southern Africa, starvation victims are dying of pneumonia, tuberculosis, and a myriad of other illnesses as their bodies waste away.

The underlying poverty in southern Africa, and the devastating effect of the HIV virus, has meant that the victims are less able to cope with the effects of the food shortages.

In Zimbabwe more than a third of the population is HIV positive. That means that a huge section of the population was struggling to survive even when food was plentiful.

In Angola, after the war, there is little in the way of healthcare for ordinary civilians. So in the starvation camps you see emaciated children with easily curable diseases like cataracts that causes blindness.

Aid failures

The rains have now started in Angola, making it difficult to get the badly needed food aid to the people.

The heavy downpours have turned many road into mires of mud. And now landmines from the war are floating to the surface on the crucial aid corridors.

This means that in the coming months the situation could become significantly worse.

The aid agencies had hoped that if they appealed early for funds they could prevent an all out famine in southern Africa, but the international response has been poor.

Of the $611m the international community appealed for in July to provide emergency food aid to southern Africa, only about half has been received.

If the money is not forthcoming - and drastic action is not taken - it is inevitable that the famine that has been long predicted, and that is still preventable, will happen in the coming year. That could mean many thousands dead.

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See also:

04 Dec 02 | Africa
11 Nov 02 | Africa
28 Nov 02 | Africa
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