Southern African leaders hold crucial meeting as food supplies dwindle

26 Feb 16

A meeting of the Southern African Development Committee that concludes today marks a “litmus test” in whether the region will cope with an increasingly dire food crisis, Oxfam has said.

 

The NGO said the SADC’s meeting, where it is hoped representatives from 14 of the region’s countries will formulate a clear response plan to the devastating drought caused by the strongest El Niño weather pattern in half a decade, will be a decisive moment in rising to the challenge.

“[The] SADC meeting is an important litmus test,” explained Daniel Sinnathamby, Oxfam’s Southern African regional humanitarian coordinator, who will attend the meeting.

“We need to look back in future months and say ‘that was the moment that regional leadership kicked in and took responsibility’.”

Sinnathamby said that “time is fast fading” for the region’s governments and aid donors to help the millions of people in need. “The longer we wait, the more people will suffer, the costlier the response, and the worse it will hit the region’s development.”

Many areas in the region have suffered the driest season in 35 years, conditions that are likely to continue over 2016. Widespread crop failure has done little to replenish already low food stocks from a poor 2014-15 harvest and prices are spiralling.

Around 27.4 million people in the region were food insecure at the end of 2015, and April’s harvests are currently projected to fail too. Oxfam warned that when they do that number could rise significantly.

Lesotho, most provinces in South Africa and Zimbabwe have all declared a state of disaster, with the latter appealing for $1.5bn in support from its private sector and charities.

The situation in Malawi, where maize prices are currently more than 60% above average, a number that rises to 175% in some southern areas, is deteriorating too.

The UK’s Department for International Development has contributed funds, but the World Food Programme says waning funds mean it may need to drastically scale back or even discontinue food distribution in Malawi by April.

Yesterday, the International Committee of the Red Cross also warned that a lack of adequate financing is threatening its relief operations in the region.

But Sinnathamby said the millions of food insecure people in the region need immediate assistance until the harvest in May.

“SADC must signal donors to bring forward their allocations now, and be flexible and fast in tackling the new realities that people are facing,” he said.

He added that the committee must look forward to, and prepare for the next failed harvest by improving regional coordination, the quality of data gathering and surveillance, and by establishing ways to fast track transport and logistics which are currently often slowed down by border trade rules.

Money for longer-term aid is also important, he continued, in order to boost climate change adaptation and social protection programmes that strengthen livelihoods and assets, help farmers to diversify into new crops, and usher in better water management and insurance schemes.

El Niño is the natural, cyclical warming of the tropical Pacific ocean which results in both drought and heavy rains across Africa, Asia, Latin America and some Pacific islands. While not caused by climate change, its effects are exacerbated by it and vice versa. 

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