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close this bookThe Courier No. 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid Country Reports Sao Tomé-Principe-Senegal (European Community, 1992)
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View the documentDrought in Southern Africa

Drought in Southern Africa

by Paul MALIN

Southern Africa was hit early in 1992 by the worst drought experienced this century, leading to a 60% shortfall in crop production. The region needs to import nearly 12 million tonnes of food between April 1992 and March 1993, of which some 4 million tonnes will be in food aid. The food aid requirements have been estimated at 2.5 million tonnes for market sales and nearly 1.8 million tonnes for food targeted on 18 million drought victims in the ten countries of the SADCC (Southern Africa Development Coordinating Conference), which comprises the whole region excluding South Africa.

The European Community responded to the situation by mobilising 750000 tonnes of food aid from normal resources and from a Special Food Aid Programme to counter the threat of famine in Africa and to meet exceptional needs in other parts of the world. The challenge the Community is now facing is to deliver this huge quantity of food to sustain people until the next harvest and to prevent the worst effects of severe food shortages. This article sets out the Community's response to this unprecedented drought.

When, at the beginning of December 1991, we discussed with USAID the holding in Brussels of one of our occasional meetings of donors to coordinate our work on food aid, we agreed that Southern Africa should figure as one of the major items on the agenda. At that time we were thinking of the situation in Angola and Mozambique, long-standing emergency operations due to civil conflict, but by the time the meeting was held at the end of February 1992, we knew that the problems in the region went well beyond those two countries.

We were, in 1991, alerted to possible problems. We had followed the situation in Zimbabwe closely and were aware of structural problems resulting in a move out of maize production. Zambia had also alerted us to likely problems. Never theless we programmed our food aid budget in January 1992 without knowing the extent of the crisis. There are early warning systems in place following previous droughts, but even if we had had better satellite pictures of the region in December (these were obscured by dust from a volcanic eruption in Asia) we could not have known the scale of the disaster, which only hit in January/ February. Up to that time crop conditions remained good in a number of countries in the region, even if prospects were poor in South Africa and Zimbabwe. It was a prolonged drought from January during the crucial pollination stages that caused widespread crop failure.

When, in late January, the FAO alert on Zimbabwe showed the need for assistance to a country which is normally a food exporter and a major source of supply for EC food aid purchases for the region, the Commission looked at how its food aid resources could be re-programmed. We then prepared a number of small allocations for countries in Southern Africa and brought forward any remaining shipments from the 1991 programme.

In February we became aware that continuing crises in Africa and elsewhere made it likely that our normal food aid resources would be insufficient. In 1991, the Community agreed a Special Food Aid Plan of 400 000 tonnes for famine-affected countries. The FAO alert for the whole Southern African region, issued on 21 February, gave an indication of the extent of the problems to be faced in 1992. We realised that we needed to plan for resources even greater than those provided for 1991, so that when Vice-President Marin presented a proposal to the Commission on I April, it was for an additional 800 000 tonnes of cereals for the Horn of Africa and certain Asian and Latin-American countries as well as for the Southern African region.

Vice-President Marin's proposal of I April presented estimates of food needs for the worst-affected countries based on information received from Commission delegations, national early warning systems and the FAO. That our estimates of needs were between 60, and 90% of those published by the FAO and World Food Programme on 15 April reflects the uncertainty about the situation even in mid-March as well as caution on our part not to overdramatise a situation which had not yet received wide attention. Agreement to the proposed additional resources was given at political level on 6 April and the various budgetary procedures were finalised by mid-May. The Special Programme was used to allocate 371500 tonnes to Southern Africa even before the United Nations convened a conference on the region on I June. A further 380 000 tonnes were allocated from normal resources.

The Community faced a number of problems in reacting to the food crisis in Southern Africa. One is simply the timing of the harvest, which means that even early warnings come after the start of the year and after the programming of resources for the Horn of Africa, where we have been dealing with an ongoing crisis for some years.

Another problem is that we have only a limited number of continuing activities in the region to give us flexibility to speed up deliveries, to divert ships or to draw on stocks in country as we have done in the Horn. We did have continuing programmes in Angola and Mozambique and were able to borrow from food delivered to Malawi for refugee feeding in order to begin distributions for drought victims.

It is several years since most of the countries in the region have required food aid so delivery systems are unfamiliar. Plans have had to be made for distributions, whether by governments or NGOs, and this has taken some time. We had at an early stage thought that most of the food aid required would be for sale, but the FAD/WFP report of 15 April confirmed the need for more than 1.5 million tonnes of food for free distribution. Our exceptional allocations have, therefore, been a mix of food for sale and food for free distribution. We are aware of the need to assist those whose crops have failed, and who do not have the resources to purchase food, by making free distributions of staple foods. However, where people have the purchasing power, food is sold and the resources generated are used for the emergency distributions or for longer-term development. Consequently the food allocated in response to the crisis has been given in part to governments for sale and in part to the United Nations World Food Programme, to the Red Cross and to a wide range of non-governmental organisations for free distribution.

As soon as the allocations of food were planned, attention turned to the preparation for next year's harvest and allocations of seeds have been made in an effort to promote recovery and to support next year's harvest.

The massive quantities of food aid mobilised by the Community for Southern Africa give the lie to suggestions that recurrent food crises in Africa have given rise to 'donor fatigue'. The transport operation for this food aid is now under way using all the ports of the region in order to meet needs which will be felt most acutely in the early months of 1993, before the new harvest. A sign of the success of this mobilisation of aid will be the prevention of the widespread malnutrition and famine, so if we succeed there will be no newspaper headlines. We can hope that the 1993 harvest will allow stocks to be reconstituted, but a full recovery from a catastrophe such as the 1992 drought will take some years.

P.M.