Southern Africa faces “litmus test” to help millions of people now suffering from worsening regional food crisis

Published: 24th February 2016

Aid donors and southern African governments must take immediate and substantial action to help poor people cope with a rapidly-deteriorating regional food crisis, fuelled by El Nino-related drought and crop failures.

Many areas have suffered the driest season in 35 years which is likely to continue throughout 2016. Crop failure is widespread. Food reserves are already low from a poor 2014-15 harvest. Prices are high and climbing. Around 27 million people in the region were already “food insecure” as of late 2015. April’s harvests are expected to fail too, so numbers could rise significantly as people begin to exhaust the ways they would ordinarily cope. Five countries have called for help.

The Southern African Development Committee (SADC) is hosting a consultative meeting on El Nino on 25-26 February 2016 in Johannesburg. It must agree a strong, clear plan in providing leadership and coordination to the response, says international aid agency Oxfam.

“Millions of people need help now and time is fast fading,” said Daniel Sinnathamby, Oxfam’s Southern African regional humanitarian coordinator who is attending the SADC meeting. “But the longer we wait, the more people will suffer, the costlier the response, and the worse it will hit the region’s development.”

“Tomorrow’s SADC meeting is an important litmus test,” he said. “We need to look back in future months and say ‘that was the moment that regional leadership kicked in and took responsibility’.”

Sinnathamby said that millions of people in the region needed urgent help now until the harvest in May. “SADC must signal donors to bring forward and boost their funding allocations now, and be flexible and fast in tackling the new realities that people are facing.”

“In addition, SADC must look forward too. We know the next harvest is expected to fail,” he said. Oxfam is looking to SADC to improve regional coordination among countries, including the quality of data gathering and surveillance. Cross border trade rules can often slow down a crisis response – Sinnathamby says that SADC could help to fast track transport and logistics by supporting its members to pre-position more food stockpiles, and clear trade and supply lines. This would help outside and local agencies to help those who need it most.

“The money is important, not just for short-term aid but also to boost climate change adaptation and social protection programs. These include strengthening people’s livelihoods and assets, helping farmers to diversify into new crops, ushering in better water management and insurance schemes – things that are vital to improve people’s resilience to shocks,” he said.

Oxfam is working in Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique particularly to scale-up and adapt its own country programs toward humanitarian assistance. “Like many agencies, Oxfam is trying to help as many people as possible before the situation spirals further. A strong signal from SADC to the international community is needed quickly in order to mobilize more resources to help,” Sinnathamby said.

The strongest El Nino for 50 years is destroying crops and decimating food supplies also in countries across Latin America, the Horn and eastern Africa, in Asia and some Pacific island nations. Oxfam is working in many of these countries helping people.  

Contact information

Innocent Katsande: +26 3 (0) 773 282 485

Daud Kayisi: +265-999826757

For updates, please follow @Oxfam or @OxfaminSAF.