By David McKenzie
BLANTYRE, Malawi, 19 September 2005 – The last time 76-year-old Edna Ngosa ate a proper meal was five days ago. She sits listlessly outside her hut without even the energy to beg. She knows that if no assistance comes there is little prospect for survival.
Edna takes care of two young orphans whose parents died of AIDS. For her and others in Malawi, the triple threat of HIV/AIDS, food insecurity and weakened government capacity looms large.
When she does get food, she often only feeds the children and leaves nothing for herself. “I see nothing but trouble because some days I can not get any charity,” said Ngosa. “Many days I get nothing. The result will be death and nothing else.”
Malawi is facing a severe food crisis: It is estimated that 4.2 to 4.6 million of the population will face food shortages between now and the next harvest in March 2006.
The United Nations has launched an urgent appeal to ask for both immediate and long-term assistance for the people of Malawi. Action is needed now. “You have already a very serious situation that, with the slightest shock, will turn into a catastrophe,” says UNICEF Representative in Malawi Aida Girma.
The crisis is born chiefly out of years of successive droughts. This year yielded 26 per cent less maize than last year’s harvest. Though the country has one of the largest lakes in the continent, irrigation schemes are limited and changing climates and delayed rains have decimated the largely agrarian economy.
Impact of HIV/AIDS
But what makes the food shortages stretching across Malawi and elsewhere in southern Africa most overwhelming is the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Estimates indicate that one in three severely malnourished children and two in five malnourished children in paediatric wards are HIV-positive.
In Malawi, grandmothers are often forced to resume the role of primary caregivers, looking after the young and vulnerable, with so many parents either dead or severely ill.
Lina Kaliati, 82, is another grandmother who is struggling to provide for children that are in her care. Lina is responsible for her six orphaned grandchildren. Their parents died of AIDS-related diseases and it is up to her to be the breadwinner.
Last harvest she managed to grow 25 kg of maize, enough to feed a family of five for about three weeks. But this is not enough. “I have been able to find very little food,” says Lina, “and it is inadequate for my household.”
Buying maize on the market is not a solution either for most people, as the prices have skyrocketed. Within sight of Lina’s field there is a government maize market, set up to sell the grain at subsidized prices. It is empty.
The worst times for Malawi will come before the harvest in March next year. The UN launched an urgent flash appeal on 30 August, to alert the world about how serious the food crisis is, and to get urgent assistance to the country. The appeal calls for funds to take care of immediate needs and to help prevent such problems in future years.
At the Chiradzulo District Hospital Nutritional Feeding Unit it is possible to see how a focused response can have immediate results. Children needing treatment are put on an intensive feeding programme for 21 days. It is easy to see which children have been there for the longest: The new arrivals are sickly and desperate, while those who have been through the programme grasp their cups with both hands as they drink the therapeutic milk.
UNICEF is set up to support 3,500 severely malnourished children per month by providing essential therapeutic foods (including therapeutic milk), supplements, drugs and other life-saving items.