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[pronut-hiv] MALAWI: Drought, HIV/AIDS weak economy undermine food security


  • From: "ProNut-HIV" <pronut-hiv@healthnet.org>
  • Date: Fri, 10 Jun 2005 11:18:25 -0400

IRIN News, 6/8/05.

MALAWI: Drought, HIV/AIDS weak economy undermine food security

BLANTYRE, 8 June (PLUSNEWS) - The impacts of drought, HIV/AIDS and a
weak economy have combined to undermine already vulnerable households in
Malawi's rural areas.

James Morris, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Humanitarian
Needs in Southern Africa, highlighted this 'triple threat' on a recent
visit to the region that included a stop in Malawi, where he called for
a renewed international response to the crisis.

Chikwawa district, south of Malawi's commercial capital, Blantyre, is
one of the areas affected by the prolonged dry spell that has decimated
the maize crop, a staple food.

The impact of HIV/AIDS has meant that many children in the district are
forced to fend for themselves, at a time when hunger threatens large
parts of the country.

Penelope Howarth, head of the World Food Programme (WFP) suboffice in
Blantyre, told IRIN that many villages in the district had "harvested
next to nothing" this year, and people were surviving on wild vegetation
and seeking out ganyu (piece work) across the border in Mozambique.

"Others are diving for water lilies - the danger is that there are a
lot of crocodiles in the river," she added. Sam Sheku, a WFP field
liaison officer, said people had to dive to the riverbed to get the
edible roots of the lilies, and Howarth noted that "six members of a
family died recently because they ate the wrong kind of lily".

Sheku said, "Normally, this time of year they would have harvested
[enough to eat] and would be planting winter maize, but there's no
residual moisture in the soil [for planting], as there has been no
rain."

The main winter cropping areas are along the Shire river and Lake
Malawi.

Howarth remarked that as a result of the poor harvest, "the maize price
is quite high - the [state cereal company] ADMARC price per kg is Kwacha
17, but the problem is that in many areas they [ADMARC] don't sell more
than 5 kg per person. On the market the price of maize is Kwacha 21 per
kg - this time last year the price was Kwacha 12 - so that's 75 percent
higher than the previous year."

She added that "even those with money have not been able to buy
sufficient maize on the markets", as traders were "selling small amounts
of maize at a time", and pointed out that "two kilograms of maize will
last about a day for the average family".

The Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) report noted that
if the maize price kept pace with inflation at the average rate for
2002-2004, some 4.2 million people would be at risk.

If inflation accelerated (as evidenced by the 75 percent rise in the
current maize price) the situation could worsen. The worst-case
scenario, depending on the speed and price of imports, could see 4.6
million people at risk in Malawi this year.

The MVAC said that with a production shortfall of over 600,000 mt, a
strategic grain reserve of 15,000 mt and imports (including informal
cross-border trade) of 104,000 mt, the country could face an overall
cereal shortfall of 482,000 mt.

Food aid of 271,000 mt could bring this down to 210,000 mt, and the
government is expected to allocate a substantial amount to food imports
when it presents the national budget in parliament this month.

Apart from the prolonged dry spell, the MVAC also identified other
problems affecting crop production, such as inadequate inputs - both in
terms of availability and timing of distribution.

The country's weak macroeconomic situation, with low foreign reserves
and potentially reduced export earnings from cash crops, coupled with
fairly high inflation and interest rates, were other key factors leading
to shortfalls in food, the MVAC found.

"The [Malawi] kwacha is devaluing against the Mozambique metical [that
country has become a source of both formal and informal maize imports
for Malawi]; the foreign exchange reserves are getting run down; tobacco
sales came on line late because of a dispute over the price - yields
were low because of the reliance on rain and problems with fertiliser
... even cotton was affected," Howarth noted.

The instability of the Kwacha was also affecting the maize price, she
added. This, combined with the dry spell, the late arrival of the
government's Targeted Inputs Programme (TIP) starter-packs for
smallholder farmers, meant most rural families had little hope of a good
harvest.

"By the time the fertiliser arrived, most people had already planted,"
Howarth remarked. "Basically, the shortage of inputs and the dry spell
exacerbated the problem - ultimately, there's a huge reliance on maize -
although there's a bit of diversification in the south, with people
growing millet and sorghum, and rain-fed agriculture."

The erratic weather over the past few years was also causing the yearly
degradation of soil quality: "there's a shortage of arable land",
Howarth said.

WFP has been conducting school-feeding and targeted food aid
distributions to vulnerable groups in parts of Malawi still trying to
recover from previous dry spells.

In Chikwawa district the agency has been distributing sorghum to the
chronically ill, but there is resistance to the commodity, as most
Malawians prefer their traditional staple food - maize.

"When we do food-for-work activities, we find some resistance [to
sorghum as a ration]," Howarth commented. To counter this, the agency
has embarked on a sensitisation process that includes detailing the
nutritional value of sorghum and providing recipes to beneficiary
communities.

Attempts have also been made to get people to diversify their crops by
planting sorghum or cassava "so they have something to put into their
stomachs", should the rains fail and maize crops whither.

Food-for-work activities have focused on raising drought resistance by
constructing irrigation canals, and building community assets by means
of road rehabilitation and other public works.

While these programmes aim to assist the country's recovery from poor
harvests in the past, a new food crisis looms.

"In some areas people have harvested enough to last them through to
October or November, but other areas, like Chikwawa and Nsange, have
been very badly hit by the dry spell - you go into the villages and you
can see the effects already - chronic malnutrition and stunting - you
have a family of 10 eating one meal a day," Howarth commented.

Although its recovery programme was still underfunded, the WFP would
have to respond to the additional demands of the spreading food
shortage.

Coping Mechanisms

Maize prices rose sharply in May, just after the harvest, when people
normally relied on their own crops, and many poor rural Malawians have
found the ability to cope being relentlessly eroded.

In Thauzeni village in Chikwawa district, the recent dry spell was a
setback for the 62 households that had managed to recover during the
past year from an earlier drought.

In 2001/02 the village suffered widespread crop failures, but a
combination of good weather and the timely distribution of inputs
allowed the village to recover over subsequent seasons.

Chief Harry Thauzeni told PlusNews that the 2001/02 harvest was
"disastrous ... because of the drought" but, fortunately, the village
received food aid from WFP; the 2002/03 harvest saw a slight
improvement, and in 2003/04 the village was able to harvest enough to
keep itself going, with just 24 households receiving aid through
food-for-work activities.

However, the 2004/05 agricultural season has been "the worst, as since
October last year there's been no rains in this area," Thauzeni said.

"We delayed planting, and planted our seed in November; we had
fertiliser from the TIP programme but there've been no rains, and we
have harvested nothing - as you can see, the place is dry," he said,
pointing to the baked earth where the village crops usually grow.

Life for the 10 child-headed households and 18 female-headed households
in the village has become much harder. "Some people have gone to
Mozambique, just two kilometres away, to work and they are sometimes
paid in kind, in maize; some make charcoal or collect firewood for
sale," Thauzeni said.

Desperate households have begun to sell livestock, such as pigs and
poultry, but the prices have gone down, as more people are desperate to
sell and there are fewer buyers.

In one female-headed household in Thauzeni village, Maria Saba, who
estimated her age at about 23, and her mother, Esnath, care for Maria's
three children as well as her younger sister Nondo's two young kids.
"Both the fathers of the children have died," Maria said.

With five children to feed, the women rely on ganyu to buy maize for
the household, but with a poor harvest, ganyu has been hard to find and
they have resorted to foraging for edible wild vegetation.

Maria said her sister Nondo had gone to find ganyu in Mozambique more
than a month ago, but the family has not seen or heard from her since
and were concerned.

"Sometimes we get attacked by Mozambicans and the maize [we are paid
with] gets stolen. They are saying Malawians must not come to Mozambique
and look for ganyu - we don't know why they are saying that," Maria
said.

The women tried to plant this season "but our maize dried up", Maria
said. "The wild leaves we eat are bitter and sometimes they make us
vomit, but we only have enough maize meal to last a day," Maria said, so
the family has reduced its intake to one meal a day.

A few metres from Maria's home, two young girls, aged 10 and 11, and
their 18-year-old brother have been forced to fend for themselves.
Zione, the youngest, and her sister, Marianna, have relied on whatever
income their brother, Masauko, is able to earn from selling firewood and
thatching for homes.

"We are here like this because our parents died last year - they died
from a long illness," said Masauko.

Although WFP conducts a school-feeding programme in the area, in a
bizarre set of circumstances the girls have been denied what is likely
to be their only guaranteed meal of the day: they were expelled because
they do not have uniforms, which they have been unable to afford since
their parents passed away.

The sisters have been denied both access to education and food aid
through the implementation of a policy the government scrapped long ago,
noted WFP food aid monitor Chance Mwalubunju, who promised to take the
matter up with the head teacher at their school.

"It's against the policy of the government - the government's policy is
for free universal primary education," he said.

Sheku noted that during the between-harvest lean season, pupils in
food-deficit areas were given take-home rations besides the food they
ate at school.

Masauko told PlusNews the three siblings ate "sometimes once a day, but
sometimes we go the whole day without eating anything".

Although the family has a field for cropping, Masauko admitted that he
knew very little about farming. "My best hope is to collect wood [for
sale]," he said. "We don't have any animals."

As a result of the interview with PlusNews, both Sheku and Mwalubunju
intervened with the school on the sisters' behalf. The head teacher
promised they would not be turned away if they came to school without
uniforms, and would be guaranteed at least one meal, five days a week.