ROME, Dec 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Breaking the
cycle of drought and hunger in Southern Africa, where 39 million
people are suffering a drought-induced food crisis, will need
better early warning systems, switching to new crops and hedging
commodity prices, food experts said on Friday.
After the region's worst drought in 35 years, people across
Southern Africa are pulling their children out of school, eating
vital seed stocks, and selling their possessions.
Some 13.8 million people need international aid, mainly
because of rising needs in Madagascar - where hunger has reached
emergency levels - Malawi and Zimbabwe, according to the latest
"(Trying to) help the countries to break the cycle of
drought-induced emergencies ... is really important but it is
also very difficult," said Timo Pakkala of the U.N. Office for
the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The seven most vulnerable countries are preparing national
strategies and policies for resilience against future droughts.
"Governments ... need to have that political leadership, and
resources and long term planning and policies," said Pakkala,
OCHA's El Nino coordinator for Southern Africa.
He was speaking ahead of the release of an updated action
plan by aid agencies for the region, which also looks at how to
stop the next major drought becoming a crisis.
The recommendations include grain marketing boards that
function transparently, helping to stabilise prices, better
management of water, and planting more drought-resistant crops.
Others include improving early warning systems in
Madagascar, and expanding social safety nets like pensions and
free school meals that can be scaled up in a crisis.
"We hope if we invest in these issues we can break the cycle
of drought emergencies," Pakkala said.
Most people affected by the drought are small farmers
growing maize, producing bumper harvests in a good year, but a
crop susceptible to poor rainfall. Some farmers may be reluctant
to switch, Francesco Del Re, senior adviser to the U.N. Food and
Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Southern Africa response.
"I can propose to the farmer a drought resistant crop, like
a certain type of bean," but people may not like the taste and
farmers will find them hard to sell, he said.
Southern Africa experiences frequent droughts, which
developed into major hunger crises in 1992 and 2002.
Some $1 billion in international aid was spent on the 2002
hunger crisis, said Steve Wiggins, research fellow of the
London-based think tank, Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
Since 2005, Malawi has offered subsidised fertilisers to all
small farmers, helping improve harvests. Zambia has also ramped
up its maize production, and built up a large national grain
reserve which helped it in the current crisis, Wiggins said.
Keeping big food stocks is an old measure to prepare for
drought, but it is also an expensive way to do it, he said.
Cheaper alternatives include buying options on commodity
exchanges so, when the harvest fails, a country can buy food at
a locked-in price, or keeping dollar reserves in an offshore
account that can subsidise the cost of grain imports, he said.
Better forecasting can also play a role. Last year,
meteorologists gave several months notice of the drought and
warned of severe drought within a month of the planting season.
"One of the obvious things is (to say) don't plant maize
this time, plant sorghum, millet," said Wiggins, while NGOs and
governments can arrange imports and support for the most needy.
"In the world of better forecasts we should now be able to
go into action a good three months earlier than we ever did in
the past and thereby do a lot more good," he said.
(Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights,
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