U.N. Warns of Impending Food Crisis in Zimbabwe

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

UNITED NATIONS, June 18 -- A U.N. food survey of Zimbabwe concluded that poor weather, skyrocketing inflation and a shortage of seeds and fertilizers are conspiring to fuel one of the worst food crises in that country in more than 15 years.

The U.N. study, conducted in April and May by the World Food Program and the Rome-based Food and Agricultural Organization, estimated that about 5 million people in Zimbabwe -- nearly half the population -- will need food assistance by early 2009. The report said Zimbabwe will have to allow international humanitarian groups to scale up their operations to meet an estimated shortfall of 395,000 tons of food, and called on the government to lift restrictions on private entrepreneurs who sell seed and fertilizers to local farmers.

The report's findings come as the impoverished southern African nation is facing perhaps its biggest political crisis since it gained independence in 1980. President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's only post-independence ruler, declared this week that he will refuse to cede power if opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai wins the June 27 runoff election, as expected. This month, Mugabe's government ordered aid groups to suspend field operations, saying they had conspired with opposition political leaders to bring down his government.

"The current political crisis is compounding an already deep social, economic and humanitarian crisis," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday in a briefing to the U.N. General Assembly. The suspension of aid groups "comes at a time when food security is deteriorating and people are becoming even more vulnerable."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she and the foreign minister of Burkina Faso would convene a meeting Thursday of U.N. Security Council members to draw attention to the electoral crisis in Zimbabwe. She urged African leaders to tell Mugabe that "the people of Zimbabwe deserve a free and fair election, that you cannot intimidate opponents, you cannot put opponents in jail."

Heavy rainfall in December and early January submerged huge swaths of Zimbabwe's cropland under water for weeks, while a stretch of dry weather that followed undermined farmers' efforts to recover. Locally produced staples such as corn and wheat will fall 40 percent compared to last year's harvest.

The United Nations estimates that more than 2 million people in Zimbabwe will need food assistance between July and September; that number is expected to rise to 3.1 million in October and peak around 5.1 million between January and March.

The latest crisis has been exacerbated by the rising costs of key imports, including food and fuel, and by government-imposed price controls that discourage farmers from growing basic staples such as corn.

But it also follows a decade-long economic decline that has shrunk the country's economy by about 44 percent since 1998 and led to the highest rates of hyperinflation in the world. Mugabe's land reform policies -- which transferred white-owned commercial farms to landless black farmers -- have dramatically undercut agricultural productivity.

"The key economic indicators since 2001 paint a picture of rampant unemployment and underemployment," the report states. "For agriculture . . . 2008 may turn out to be one of the worst years since 1992."

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