Food for Thought

Imagine living in a world where it’s too expensive to eat. I don’t mean a night out at a restaurant or missing the occasional pastry. I mean when it’s too expensive to keep good nutritious food on the table. That’s what’s happening in the part of Africa where I live. A nutritious balanced diet is out of reach for many, and a lot of people eat only once or twice a day.

For much of the last year, more than 20 million people here were dependent on food assistance; they make up half of the 40 million Africans affected by the worst drought in 35 years.

Let me clarify: I’m not talking about Somalia, South Sudan or Nigeria. I’m talking about Southern Africa where a prolonged El Nino event produced two consecutive years of drought. Crops failed here and they failed badly. The price of staples like maize and sorghum skyrocketed and, in many places, were simply no longer available, bringing about levels of hunger previously unseen in this part of the continent.

People’s coping mechanisms are exhausted. People are exhausted. Few will die of starvation but the long term effects are profound. Around one in four children under the age of five are stunted, a condition caused by malnutrition that, for older children, cannot be reversed. Families without food are not sending their children to school; those children that go to school hungry struggle to focus and their grades suffer.

In Mozambique, one of our team met a mother who told him she was thinking she’d have to arrange a marriage for her 12 year old daughter because she couldn’t provide food for her anymore.

In Madagascar, more than one and a half million people in the south of the country are dependent on emergency aid, over 330,000 of them face severe hunger. Eight out of ten are farmers. Families are selling their assets and migrating in search of alternative incomes.

The good news is the rains finally came and harvests will be better this year but the wet season doesn’t always bring relief. In March, Cyclone Enawo in Madagascar left more than 250,000 people in need of food assistance and more than 350,000 without clean water. Cyclone Dineo affected more than 500,000 people in Mozambique in February – but its greatest affect will be on communities’ longer term food security. Dineo destroyed more than 29,000 hectares of crops including maize, ground nut, cassava and beans. For many, this was their first harvest after the drought. Now it’s gone.

Dineo didn’t stop there. Its rains wreaked havoc on Zimbabwe where floods across 45 districts killed more than 250 people. In Malawi, where one in three people were reliant on food aid at the height of the drought, floods washed away almost 2,000 hectares of maize, cowpea, cassava and sweet potato, as well as livestock such as goats and chickens. People’s homes, their household food supplies, clothing, and cooking utensils were lost. The rains severely damaged infrastructure, making it even more difficult to distribute food or any kind of relief.

And then there’s the Fall Army worm that began eating its way across Southern Africa at about the same time the rains started. Although mostly found in maize, the parasite also been detected in sorghum, potato, tomato, spinach, bean, cowpea, soybean, groundnut, banana, and ginger, as well as in grazing pasture used by livestock.

For many farmers, Armyworm has wiped out their first crops for three years, leaving them with nothing. One Malawian farmer said he and his family of six children are now eating only two meals a day, porridge during the day and maize meal at night.

Time and again we’ve seen how resilient these communities are but Fall Army worm is a new and potentially very dangerous threat. The application of some pesticides has controlled the outbreak in parts of the region, but a cost effective solution for small holder farmers has yet to be found.

Humanitarian assistance from organisations such as CARE has played a big role in many people’s lives here. CARE has distributed cash, food and relief supplies to people affected by drought, floods and cyclones. We’re working with farmers on improved techniques aimed at increasing household food production so they can better deal with climate and shocks, and improving community resilience to disasters such as drought.

But I worry that it’s not enough. If we don’t all pull together – donors, governments, aid agencies – and take action now, millions of people across the continent will continue to suffer. Something to think about we enjoy our abundance.

By Michelle Carter, Managing Deputy Regional Director for Southern Africa, CARE International