The number of people affected by the drought in southern Africa was growing faster than anticipated, with 1.6 million more people now facing the prospect of hunger and starvation, a senior United Nations official who recently travelled to the region said today.
UN Deputy Relief Coordinator Carolyn McAskie told a press briefing that a new set of assessment figures indicated that the number of people in the six countries worst-hit by the food shortages - Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique - had grown to 14.4 million people, up from 12. 8 million. Meanwhile, people in neighbouring countries such as Namibia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were also starting to feel the effects of the dwindling supply.
Ms. McAskie was briefing the press at UN Headquarters in New York following her two-week mission to the region with the UN Special Envoy for the humanitarian crisis in southern Africa, James T. Morris, and other relief officials.
According to Ms. McAskie, the crisis resulted from a combination of three factors. Drought and erratic rainfall affected the main food staple - maize - as that crop required the right amount of rain at the right time. The affected countries also wrestled with a development crisis, as they had serious problems in terms of agricultural, health and educational capacities. Compounding matters was the HIV/AIDS crisis.
"Not until you go there, do you realize how terribly devastating it is," she said. The report of the Special Envoy, to be ready in a few days, would indicate that the current crisis was "a crisis like none other."
The UN has appealed for $611 million, of which $507 million was for food and $105 million for interventions in the health, nutrition and agriculture sectors, Ms. McAskie said, adding that while she was confident reasonable amounts of food aid could be provided, there would probably still be a shortage of close to a million metric tons.
As for the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Ms. McAskie said five of the six countries she had visited had agreed to accept GMOs, provided it was milled before contribution. The Governments had accepted that the food was fit for human consumption but did not want the grains to take root in their land. The food must also meet the standards of the United Nations and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and be certified safe for consumption in the donating country.