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African poverty { September 17 2002 }

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Famine Threatens 14 Million in Southern Africa

By Ravi Nessman
Associated Press
Tuesday, September 17, 2002; Page A22

JOHANNESBURG, Sept. 16 -- A food crisis in six southern African countries has worsened and now threatens more than 14 million people with famine, U.N. officials said today.

"The intensity of this crisis is increasing faster than we ever could have expected," said James Morris, the U.N. special envoy to the southern African hunger crisis.

"The human devastation to the most vulnerable people in those six countries is overwhelming," said Morris, who just completed a tour of the affected region.

The United Nations had previously estimated that about 12.8 million people were at risk of hunger before next year's harvest begins in April. The situation has been exacerbated, however, by a lack of food in some countries and the inability of the poor to afford what little food is available, officials said.

People in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique are affected by the crisis, which officials say is caused by devastating droughts and floods and, in some countries, government mismanagement.

"It's going to take the most incredible, generous, coordinated response . . . to work out of this situation," Morris said.

The U.N. World Food Program has received pledges to cover about one-third of the $507 million in emergency food aid that it needs for the region and has commitments for nearly a third more.

The United Nations has asked for more than $100 million in related aid, for agriculture and health care.

The AIDS pandemic is making the crisis far more deadly, Morris said. The affected countries have adult AIDS rates ranging from 12 percent to 36 percent and the lack of food is exacerbating the effects of the disease.

"This is a crisis of incredible proportions," he said.

Many farmers have no seeds, tools or fertilizer, though planting for next year's harvest should be getting underway, U.N. officials said. Without a robust harvest, many of those countries risk another year of hunger, they said.

According to the new assessment, 6.7 million people are at risk in Zimbabwe, 3.3 million in Malawi, 2.9 million in Zambia, 650,000 in Lesotho, 590,000 in Mozambique and 270,000 in Swaziland.

"Even with assistance starting to move, it's not enough, and time is running out," said Judith Lewis, the World Food Program's regional director.

Political situations in several of the countries have complicated the crisis. Zambia has refused to accept corn donations from the United States, the top donor, because the corn might be genetically modified. Zambian officials fear risks from those donations, though the United Nations has said the corn is safe.

Zambian scientists are currently touring South Africa, Europe and the United States to learn more about the modified food, Morris said.

In Zimbabwe, the World Food Program blames the government's often-violent seizure of white-owned commercial farms for worsening the food crisis. The government has refused to relax its monopoly on grain imports to allow private companies to bring in food.

Morris said that serious food problems also plague Angola, which is just coming out of a quarter-century of civil war.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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