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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

18 July 2002

The United Nations has launched an appeal for $611 million to avert a humanitarian crisis of "staggering proportions" in southern Africa, said Kenzo Oshima, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, at Headquarters today.

"I believe we can avert a famine if we act immediately, swiftly," said Mr. Oshima, who was briefing correspondents jointly with Reginald Mugwara, Director of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

"We must not wait until the pages of your publications and the television screens are full of bad images. Indeed, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing," he said.

Mr. Oshima, who had just returned from a trip to the region, noted that nearly 13 million people in six countries -- Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho and Zambia -- were in danger of starvation. "I was deeply struck by the impact of the crisis on ordinary citizens and the scale of the challenge that faces us all."

The effects of the AIDS pandemic and other factors on the region meant taking a multi-sectoral approach to the crisis, he said. Food aid would be key, but must be complemented with assistance to such sectors as health, nutrition, water and sanitation.

This morning's meeting of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) had heard from representatives of the six countries as well as representatives of United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground about the crisis, he added. Several key donors had voiced strong support, and pledges had already been received from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Canada, United States, the European Commission and Germany.

Mr. Mugwara explained that Ministers at a meeting in Maputo, Mozambique on 5 July had recognized that the current humanitarian situation was not a typical drought emergency. "Instead, an erratic rain season … has now led to substantive food shortages that are threatening the food security of African member States."

Immediate action was needed as well as long-term efforts to ensure that such a crisis never occurred again, Mr. Mugwara said. The Ministers had adopted a "Never Again Initiative" at the meeting, which would explore all underlying constraints affecting food security within member States and across the region.

Noting that land reform had been a leading cause of the crisis in Zimbabwe, a correspondent asked how that policy would affect those long-term efforts. Mr. Oshima replied that the fast track land resettlement programme in Zimbabwe was a serious factor, but other issues also must be explored, such as the roles the private sector and marketing monopoly system had played.

He said he had discussed those issues with government officials during his trip to Zimbabwe, and had learned that some had been addressed. How far policy adjustments would ameliorate the situation remained to be seen, he admitted, but they were clearly of concern to the donor community.

Asked what effect the famine, if not averted, would have on SADC, Mr. Mugwara replied: "I think its effect would be catastrophic." If 13 million people are in danger of starving to death, it has implications throughout the region."

People would move en masse throughout the region in search of food, and economies would suffer from such upheaval. "It would be ghastly to contemplate the consequences of allowing a situation like this to deteriorate," he said.

Another correspondent commented that the crisis had erupted mainly due to bad governance, rather than natural factors. Mr. Oshima said it had been caused by a complex mix of factors. Yes, government policies had contributed, but the region had also experienced years of drought and flooding, which had seriously eroded economies. HIV/AIDS had also severely depleted the human resource base of societies.

Mr. Mugwara added that the drought explanation had not been enough for SADC, which had attempted to identify other food constraints. Information on other causes was being collected and analysed, and would be discussed at a September meeting of the Community in Angola.

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