The HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa is exacerbating a food crisis so extreme that it threatens to become the worst in modern times.
This weekend marks World AIDS Day, when we should pause to focus on the plight of people and families whose lives are blighted by one of the most lethal diseases history has seen.
This annual spotlight could hardly come at a more poignant moment: the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa is exacerbating a food crisis so extreme that it threatens to become the worst in modern times.
It is difficult to comprehend, but in seven southern African countries the lives of over fourteen million people are at risk of starvation – that’s more than the number of people who live in Greater London.
And it is not scaremongering to predict that within a few months the region could be experiencing a catastrophic humanitarian emergency.
Drought, combined with bad government and conflict, in a region severely weakened by HIV/AIDS, has created desperate food shortages in Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique Swaziland, Lesotho, and Angola. It is the very poorest who are most at risk – some already reduced to scraping for roots, others facing illness and death, many losing loved ones.
In the longer term, given the crucial role that education plays in development, it is deeply disheartening to learn of children being withdrawn from school and some of those attending learning little because they are too hungry to learn.
The spectre of famine is not new in southern Africa but in previous years pockets of people living in areas where harvests had failed could buy from foodstocks. Now stocks are almost gone and the price of what remains is too high for most people. The AIDS pandemic makes the situation uniquely threatening: in a region where up to one in three adults are weakened by the virus, people’s ability to deal with the impact of food shortage is very weak and the risk of large scale loss of life is great. On top of this the levels of HIV/AIDS are exacerbating food shortages as more households are headed by children – where parents have died – leading to lower agricultural production and less food. The more that hunger forces women to trade sex for food, the more the virus spreads. The more health workers who are themselves ill, the fewer malnourished people can be treated. And the more that people with HIV lose immunity through malnutrition, the more vulnerable they are to illnesses like TB and Malaria.
However, the present emergency is not simply down to drought and the AIDS crisis. The disastrous situation in Zimbabwe, long the breadbasket of southern Africa, has deepened the crises turning it into a potential catastrophe. Robert Mugabe has wrecked his country by gross economic mismanagement and a disastrous land policy. On top of this he is obstructing and politicising food deliveries punishing starving people for daring to vote for the opposition. The country’s maize harvest has fallen by more than two thirds – fields once thick with crops are now weed, sand and dried earth. People who, a year ago, could put food on their tables are reduced to scavenging as hope evaporates.
The international community must act decisively now to get food in to these areas and the task is not hopeless if we immediately draw together the international community in a concerted political effort. Our own UK programmes – working with the UN – demonstrate that we can effectively target resources to reach those most at risk of starvation. In the case of Zimbabwe despite Mugabe’s anti UK propaganda, we are supporting NGO’s who are channelling supplies to local communities according to need and not political outlook.
We are already feeding many of the most vulnerable across southern Africa – the UK is the second largest donor after the US and DFID has just provided a further =A311 million for immediate humanitarian assistance to help people survive and cope through the coming difficult months. British taxpayers are entitled to take pride in the = £100 million they have already provided and the important role officials from my department are playing in meeting urgent needs.
But the situation in southern Africa is very finely balanced, with evidence to indicate that it is likely to rapidly deteriorate into disaster as people’s coping abilities are exhausted. A team of experts from my department has just completed a series of country assessments and their judgement is that if the global community intensifies its response now, we could provide lifesaving supplies for most of those at risk.
This week I met with the southern Africa Director of the UN’s World Food Programme. Their problem is that their appeal is only just fifty per cent funded. They will run out of food for the region in the next couple of months unless more countries put money on the table. The funding of non-food items such as essential drugs and the means to get access to water is even worse.
I have written to all Development Ministers calling for financial support and I am trying to scrape together additional money from my department to provide further support.
It is no exaggeration to say that if the world does not act promptly, then early next year our TV screens will be filled with heart-rending scenes of large scale movements of people, loss of life and human suffering. The tragedy is likely to be much deeper and more serious because so many people are weakened by HIV/AIDS. And recovery will take much longer with so many people of working age who will lose their lives or be weakened by hunger leaving large numbers of orphans and elders with few breadwinners to work for the recovery.