Four million Zimbabweans in need of food aid

While many agree that the El Niño is to blame for the drought, critics blame the government.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters/File
A Zimbabwean man roasts maize for sale at the side of the road in the capital Harare. The number of Zimbabweans requiring food aid has risen to 4 million, up from 3 million initially, a state-owned newspaper said on Tuesday, as the southern African nation grapples with its worst drought in more than two decades.

The severe drought in Zimbabwe is worsening and increasing the number of people in need of food aid. Up to 4 million people are now in need of food assistance, up from 1.5 million last year, according to the UN.

Zimbabwe has been experiencing shortage of rain driven by the El Niño weather phenomenon and has been relying on neighboring countries including South Africa and Botswana for food imports. But the rest of the region is experiencing drought too.

A January survey indicated that at least 37 percent of Zimbabwean households were experiencing hunger, the BBC reports. Last February, President Robert Mugabe declared a "state of disaster" in rural areas hit by a severe drought, appealing for $1.6 billion in aid from international donors.

The United Nations Development Programme raised $60 million for food aid in the country last month and plans to raise an additional $130 million under an emergency fund.

Many analysts agree that El Niño is to blame for the drought. But critics also point to the government, suggesting that the weather pattern is only exacerbating the existing food shortage.

"This is not about El Niño, it is about lack of planning and lack of oversight and foresight by a tired gerontocratic regime," former Finance Minister Tendai Biti told Deutsche Welle.

Critics have blamed the drought on lack of proper planning, accusing the government of downplaying the hunger situation.

“We also have to look at chronic and structural aspects of food insecurity,” said Jan Vossen, Oxfam’s country director, according to Zimbabwe News Now. “Even in a normal rain year there are 700,000 people in Zimbabwe that are food insecure and face difficulties to make ends meet.”

"It was known since last year that the rains will be scarce this year, so it's quite problematic that every time our government responds late to issues like this one," Blessing Vava, a rights activist, told Deutsche Welle. "If you look at how the government prioritizes its issues it appears to be out of touch with what people are facing on the ground."

Last month, President Mugabe was widely criticized for throwing a $800,000 birthday party while people were facing starvation.

"The money that is being budgeted for this ill-conceived birthday bash should actually be used to import maize to avert the impending starvation in Masvingo province and other parts of the country," Obert Gutu, a spokesman for the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, told Reuters.

Other critics of Mugabe blame his land-reform policies, launched in 2000, that expelled white farmers and redistributed the land to black farmers. The farmers that inherited the land lacked proper experience, they say.

"It's a shame that our agricultural production has gone down, yet Zimbabwe is an agricultural society and our economy is centered on agriculture," Joy Mabenge, a political analyst in Zimbabwe, told Deutsche Welle. “The low productivity that has affected our economy has nothing to do with sanctions, but is rather the failure to optimally use the land that has been allocated to the so-called new farmers.”

Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Fund has issued a warning that the malnutrition rates are increasing in Zimbabwe. Up to 33,000 children, most of whom are between one and two years old, are in need of urgent treatment for "severe acute malnutrition," The New York Times reported.

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