UN humanitarian chief spotlights impact of drought on southern Africa

UN humanitarian chief spotlights impact of drought on southern Africa

John Holmes
The top United Nations humanitarian official today, highlighting the impact of severe droughts in several southern African countries, stressed that the situation is particularly dire in Swaziland and appealed for over $15 million to assist that country.

“We’re anticipating quite serious problems of food insecurity” in the region, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said at a press briefing in New York.

Swaziland was hit by the worst drought in 15 years and its maize harvest of 26,000 metric tons was the poorest ever. While the country’s Government has pledged over $20 million to respond to the situation, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is appealing for an additional $15.6 million to address needs over the next few months.

Contributions to the Flash Appeal launched today, which aims “to raise funds to prevent a crisis,” will be put towards food and agricultural assistance, health and nutrition and water and sanitation needs, Mr. Holmes said. Looking forward, he added that the funds will also be put towards early recovery to “protect people’s livelihoods over the difficult period to come.”

As in other countries in the region, the situation created by the food shortage in Swaziland is exacerbated by the high number of people – 220,000 or 20 per cent of the population – living with HIV/AIDS.

Nearly $4 million of the Flash Appeal funds will provide immediate food assistance to the most vulnerable groups, including children under the age of five, orphans, vulnerable children, pregnant and lactating mothers and those affected by HIV/AIDS.

Mr. Holmes, who also serves as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, hoped that donors will respond generously to the Flash Appeal.

OCHA will shortly be launching a similar appeal for Lesotho, as the small country declared a food emergency earlier this month after suffering the worst drought in three decades and a 40 per cent dip in the maize harvest, a staple crop. Nearly 400,000 people – or one fifth of the population – will be in need of emergency food aid as a result.

Elsewhere in the region, Mr. Holmes noted that Zimbabwe’s cereals harvest plummeted 44 per cent since last year, resulting in one third of the population requiring some form of food assistance by early next year.

In spite of the Government’s imports of maize, wheat and rice, he said the country will still face a gap of approximately 350,000 tons of cereals which will mainly be met by the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

He also highlighted the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which he characterized as a “long-running humanitarian crisis” due to food insecurity, limited basic services and problems brought about by conflict, communicable diseases and natural disasters.

Of particular concern is the situation in the country’s volatile east, where some 700,000 people have been displaced by recent instability. If large-scale fighting breaks out in the area, “there is a real fear of very severe humanitarian consequences [for] the civilian population caught in the middle of that fighting,” Mr. Holmes said.

Regarding the occupied Palestinian territory, OCHA still faces problems regarding humanitarian access, despite some success in recent weeks.

Mr. Holmes pointed out that 80 per cent of the companies in Gaza have closed. “This means that the livelihoods of the population are disappearing and, therefore, the likelihood is, if this does not change in the next few weeks and months, that the population of Gaza – one and a half million – will be dependent on humanitarian aid,” he said.