A farmer takes a break in Swaziland © FAO/Rodger Bosch

We Know a Food Crisis is Coming to Southern Africa. $549 Million Can Prevent it. Will the World Pony Up?

A catastrophe is looming in southern Africa.

This year’s historically intense El Nino sparked a region-wide drought that has decimated harvests. The area was already prone to food insecurity, but the extreme nature of this El Nino is causing a food emergency on an unprecedented scale. In Malawi alone, the World Food Program says there has been a 169 percent increase in the number of people in need of food assistance over the past year, from 2.83 million in 2015 to 6.5 million people this year.

Other countries in southern Africa, including Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland and Mozambique have declared food emergencies. For its part, the World Food Program has activated its own internal emergency response mechanism, elevating the food crisis caused by El Nino in southern Africa to a “level 3” emergency. That’s the highest level, putting it on par South Sudan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

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Speaking from Malawi yesterday, World Food Program executive director Ertharin Cousin says the WFP is planning to reach 11.8 million people in the region with food assistance between now and March 2017. But to do so, they need some $549 million and raising this money has been difficult because the crisis in Southern Africa is a slow burning and off the headlines. “We have not received much attention from the world community as this situation escalates,” she said.

Of this $549 million, Cousin says $204 million is needed “urgently” to preposition food ahead of a coming rainy season that is expected to be particularly intense as El Nino’s sister weather phenomenon, La Nina, sets in.  By October, the rainy season will come in earnest. Roads will flood. Communities may be cut off and reaching the people who most need food assistance will become much more difficult.

“We have a drought, but have an opportunity to avoid this drought from becoming a severe crisis,” says Cousin. “We are trying to raise the alarm now before this becomes a full blown crisis.”