Hunger stalks southern Africa as El Nino decimates harvests

JOHANNESBURG - Mudhara Musara points a gnarled finger at his small field of dying corn, burnt blue-gray by the broiling sun over Zimbabwe’s northern Lower Guruve District where midday temperatures approach 50 degrees Celsius.

“Even if it rains now, all is lost,” said Musara, who puts his age at “about 80” and wears a torn, faded sports jacket over his skeletal frame. “Planting again in January makes the season too short, the yield would be pathetic. Besides, the drought seems set to continue. This year people will die.”

Musara’s foreboding is well-founded. Vast tracts of farmland across southern Africa have been decimated by the worst drought in almost two decades, raising the spectre of a regional famine. Governments that are strapped for cash due to the commodity price rout are facing mounting pressure to subsidize food and provide aid as inflationary pressures intensify.

The price of white maize, a staple, has more than doubled since the start of 2015, while the yellow variety that’s a base for animal feed has advanced 63% on the South African Futures Exchange. Both cereals have traded at record highs this month.

Zimbabwe is experiencing its driest rainy season in about two decades. President Robert Mugabe’s cash-strapped administration plans to import about 700 000 metric tons of maize to meet a production shortfall, Agriculture Minister Joseph Made said January 8. While the government has said maize must be bought from neighbouring Zambia, which raised prices 17% this month as stocks dwindled, private millers have petitioned Made to permit purchases from Brazil and Argentina.

South Africa, the continent’s biggest corn producer, will have to import about half the grain it needs this year, volumes that may prove to be too big for the ports to handle, according to Grain SA, a farmers’ association.

Import demands

“It seems almost impossible to import 4 million tons of maize on top of the 1.4 million tons of wheat and half a million tons of soy oil cake,” said Jannie de Villiers, the group’s chief executive officer. He subsequently revised the estimate of maize that will need to be imported to 5 million tons.

About 10% of the 277 million people living in the 15-nation Southern African Development Community will probably need food aid after cereal production dropped to record lows in December, according to Margaret Nyirenda, the group’s director of food, agriculture and natural resources.

The El Nino phenomenon, which has disrupted the rainfall that normally falls over the region from November to April, bears the brunt of the blame for the failed harvest of staples such as maize, soy, sorghum and cassava.

Tobacco bankruptcies

In Zambia, the drought has prompted the Food Reserve Agency to suspend state exports of maize and driven the fledgling tobacco industry to the brink of bankruptcy.

“It’s catastrophic,” said John Archer, a 54-year-old tobacco farmer near Kabwe in Zambia’s Central Province. “Without rain, the dams we need for irrigation won’t hold out and the weather scientists say that next season will be even worse.’’

Lake Kariba, the world’s biggest man-made reservoir which straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, is now 14% full and scores of cattle in surrounding districts are dying of thirst and heat stroke.

“Life here is hard because it’s very hot and wildlife kills cattle and eats crops, but we cope when the rains come,’’ Prosper Choma, a 61-year-old subsistence farmer in the Omay Communal Land in northern Zimbabwe, said by phone. “Without rain, our few cattle die and then we die unless we’re fed by aid agencies.”

The situation is even more dire in southern Zimbabwe, which has always been drier than the north.

Goats dying

”There is nothing to eat here, nothing, nothing, nothing,’’ said Luke Moyo, a 51-year-old car mechanic in Beitbridge, the main border crossing to South Africa. “Even the goats will die this year. It’s now a desert. It will look like Egypt if there is no rain between now and April.”

Back in Guruve, Musara shrugs his shoulders in resignation.

“It’s Zimbabwe,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s God or the ancestors, but it seems to me that we’re being made to suffer disaster after disaster after disaster. Perhaps we are being punished.”

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