More than 7.7 million Zimbabweans, or half of the country’s population, are experiencing severe hunger, according to the World Food Program.
Frequent droughts in recent years have wrecked agricultural production in the country, causing maize harvests to decline by more than 50% in 2019 compared to the year before. Maize is an essential staple in Zimbabwe, consumed in various ways. Without it, people simply don’t have enough food to eat. This ongoing environmental disaster has been exacerbated by economic dysfunction, political failures, and widespread poverty to create what Hilal Elver, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to food, called “man-made starvation.”
The WFP is calling for $239 million in emergency aid to fund programs through June. The organization plans to double its efforts by January to help 4.1 million people primarily by delivering in-kind food, as opposed to cash assistance, an approach the WFP had to abandon in the face of Zimbabwe’s skyrocketing inflation.
“We’re deep into a vicious cycle of sky-rocketing malnutrition that’s hitting women and children hardest and will be tough to break,” said WFP Executive Director David Beasley. “With poor rains forecast yet again in the run-up to the main harvest in April, the scale of hunger in the country is going to get worse before it gets better.”
Food insecurity affects the entire country, but it’s particularly acute in rural areas that rely on local food production. In fact, more than 5.5 million rural residents need immediate food assistance, compared to 2.2 million urban areas, where faltering public services and steep inflation have made it hard to access food.
Elver described people waiting for hours in lines at banks, gas stations, and water stations. Hospitals, meanwhile, are running out of supplies.
The crisis is hitting children the hardest. Elver said that 90% of children aged six months and two years aren’t getting enough nutrients, putting them at risk of stunting, wasting, and other developmental problems.
“I saw the ravaging effects of malnutrition on infants deprived of breast feeding because of their own mothers’ lack of access to adequate food,” Elver said.
School-aged children are being forced to drop out of school and spend their days working. Others are being forced into early marriage, prostitution, and other forms of trafficking. Domestic violence is also surging, according to Elver.
In addition to providing immediate food aid, the WFP is also working to bolster the country against future climate shocks and create conditions that allow people to become food-independent.
These measures include re-introducing hardy and nutritious local crops that have been replaced by maize, helping communities access regional markets, improve access to savings, and reinforce infrastructure.
The UN is also urging Zimbabwe’s government to pursue policies that will prevent future food crises from occurring.
“We must not let our immediate focus on emergency aid distract us from investing in the resilience programs that will help chronically hungry people cope with the ever-more severe impacts of erratic weather,” Beasley said. “We urge the international community to step up funding to address the root causes of long-term hunger in Zimbabwe.”