African famine crisis warning
July 24, 2002 Posted: 7:45 AM EDT (1145 GMT)
GENEVA, Switzerland (AP) -- Time is running out to tackle the looming hunger crisis in southern Africa, a U.N. food official warned on Wednesday.
"The needs are great, but the window of opportunity ... to avert a major humanitarian crisis is closing," said Judith Lewis, the World Food Program's head of operations for eastern and southern Africa. "The message is that the situation is becoming more serious daily."
The food shortage, expected to reach its peak in the next few months, has left an estimated 12.8 million people at risk of going hungry in six southern African nations.
The countries affected by the crisis are Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Earlier this month, the U.N. food agency -- which already is helping some 6 million people in the region -- launched an urgent appeal for $507 million in international aid to alleviate the crisis.
Lewis said the food shortage was a "crisis within in crisis," because it would compound existing high rates of malnutrition and AIDS.
About 28 million of the 40 million people worldwide infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, live in sub-Saharan Africa.
While the situation in many of the countries was caused by poor weather during the growing season, the crisis was exacerbated in Malawi by the government's decision to sell off its grain reserve last year, leaving the country vulnerable to a bad harvest.
In Zimbabwe, the crisis has been compounded by President Robert Mugabe's seizure of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to landless blacks, ruling party officials and government supporters.
Many farmers have been ordered to stop working their land, even as crops remain to be harvested in their fields.
"Clearly land reform has impacted on the amount of food available," Lewis said.
Human rights workers in Zimbabwe have complained that the government was using food as a political weapon, giving it to ruling party supporters and denying it to areas considered opposition strongholds.
Lewis said she was aware of "allegations that the government demanded people show their party cards" to receive food aid.
The WFP has "a policy of zero tolerance of any interference in distribution" in its own operations in Zimbabwe, she added.
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