Malawi is facing its worst food crisis in more than a decade, the result of a combination of factors, including drought, floods, consecutive poor harvests, endemic poverty and the effects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, FAO said today.
More than 4.2 million people, or over 34 percent of the population, are unable to meet their food needs. Production of maize, Malawi's most important staple crop, is estimated at nearly 1.3 million tonnes this year, the lowest in a decade and around 26 percent less than last year's relatively poor harvest.
"Early and above average rains had raised hopes for a good crop, but the rains failed during the critical period from late January to end of February when the maize crop was pollinating and forming cobs," said Tesfai Ghermazien, FAO emergency coordinator in Malawi. "The dry spell also coincided with cassava and sweet potato planting in some areas."
In addition, exceptionally heavy rains in December and early January caused flooding and crop losses, especially in the southern and central part of the country.
"The impacts of the failed harvest won't be felt fully until the lean season sets in between October and April," said Ghermazien. "We need urgent assistance from the donor community to prevent a further escalation of the crisis and to avert widespread hunger and malnutrition, especially among children under the age of five."
Agriculture, which is mainly rain fed, is the most important sector of the economy in Malawi, accounting for about 39 percent of gross domestic product and employing around 85 percent of the workforce. It contributes to more than 90 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters such as droughts and floods, with serious repercussions on crop production. This year's drought is expected to result in a national cereal gap of between 300 000 to 500 000 tonnes.
"The challenge is to provide immediate relief supplies to the affected populations and to design long-term recovery strategies to avert similar situations in the future," said Ghermazien. "The promotion of drought-tolerant crops and crop diversification, for example, will help mitigate the impacts of droughts."
HIV/AIDS a major problem
The HIV/AIDS pandemic continues to be a major social and economic problem for the country, with around 15 percent of the population estimated to be HIV infected.
The impact on the agricultural sector has been significant, with loss of labour due to death, illness or the diversion of labour to care for the sick sharply affecting production and leaving a large part of the population without adequate food supplies.
Range of interventions needed
"Most of the areas affected by drought or flooding this year were already facing critical food shortages, and many families lost both their crops in the field and their food stores," said Ghermazien. "These households will need food aid, but also agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers for the next planting season, starting in October."
Assistance is also needed to help vulnerable households broaden their economic base. FAO is promoting crop diversification to reduce reliance on maize, small livestock production, small-scale irrigation and income-generating activities.
Interventions such as the promotion of home gardens and nutrition education for HIV/AIDS-affected households and malnourished children are needed to help improve the health and nutritional status of these most vulnerable groups.
Other proposed activities include the promotion of drought-tolerant crops, such as cassava and sweet potatoes, afforestation in flood-prone areas to improve soil structure, and establishment of fruit tree nurseries and primary school orchards to improve child nutrition.