Roselyne Sachiti : Features Editor
A field with wilted maize crop, four thin cattle, two goats, five roosters and a duck are what remains at a homestead in the Chilonga area, Chiredzi in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo Province. Cattle buyers from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, flock to the area to look for a quick buy from desperate villagers wishing to destock.That is not their only problem. Their granaries are empty, food is hard to come by.
In areas like Muzarabani in the country’s Mashonaland Central Province, rains last quenched the parched ground last month and villagers are not expecting any harvest.
Granaries are also empty and most villagers are travelling to one of Zimbabwe’s border areas with Mozambique, Mukumbura, to buy maize.
Here a bucket of maize usually between 15 and 20kg costs $12 and can last a week depending on the size of the family.
A few boreholes still have water which residents compete for with their livestock.
In this part of the country, villagers have no choice but to sell their cattle for as little as between $100 and $200 as they cannot watch them die. The situation is similar in areas like Bulilima and Mangwe Districts, Matabeleland South Province, where desperate villagers whose crops are a write off are selling cattle for as little as $50.
With no supplementary feeding, most of the cattle have deteriorated.
Over 22 000 cattle have died countrywide as a result of drought.
In the drought affected areas, many homesteads shelter young children between one and five years old.
The under fives have not been spared the drought as their nutritional needs have been overlooked at family level. Parents and guardians just feed the children what is available to fill their tummies and make it through to the next day.
A young woman, who wanted to be identified only as Eliza, is a mother of three children aged five years, three years and six months.
She is one woman whose children have been feeding on a diet nothing near the recommended “four star diet” and they risk severe malnutrition.
The four star diet includes a variety of foods during each meal. For example: animal-source foods (flesh meats, eggs and dairy products) are star*; staples (grains, roots and tubers) stars**; legumes and seeds stars***; Vitamin A rich fruits and vegetables and other fruits and vegetables stars****.
“I just feed my kids whatever I get, but they are mainly eating the staple sadza for breakfast and supper,” she says.
Eliza and her husband are unemployed and depend on farming. Many others in the country’s rural areas face the same fate.
Zimbabwe is currently experiencing an El Niño-induced drought following below average rainfall during the 2015 /2016 season.
Based on the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC) results of 2015, approximately 16 percent of rural households, and almost 1.5 million people are reported to be food insecure during the current peak hunger season running from January-March, representing a rise of 160 percent compared to the 2013–2014 peak hunger season.
This has resulted in a protracted food and nutrition insecurity situation.
Among the 1,5 million food insecure people are under five children, Eliza’s included.
Jane Makambira, chairperson of the Hurudziro Health Club in Chingwizi, Masvingo Province said they had reacted to the food shortages by teaching villagers other nutritional alternatives since children are in danger of stunting if not properly nourished.
“We grow a variety of vegetables in our gardens and others feed poultry so that we can maintain a ‘four-star diet’ for the babies.
“However, the rains have not been on our side this year and this has affected our gardens. We also use ‘tsotso’ stoves which are fuel-efficient and can keep food warm for longer,” said Makambira.
A nurse at Chingwizi Clinic told The Herald that unavailability of food jeopardised their health care work for the community.
“Our ability to attend to patients is weakened by lack of food for those who must be waited on for longer hours.
“We also have a lot of children under the age of five in the area who need to come here regularly and we also provide anti-retroviral therapy (ART) but there is no food to support these services.
“The only assistance we have received so far is grain,” she says.
She also said unavailability of food at Chingwizi meant that the clinic had to be more involved in fighting malnutrition, for example, through micro-nutrient powders, but maintained there was need to improve under fives’ nutrition at community level.
Masvingo is one of the provinces that still remain at risk of severe malnutrition due to the food insecurity situation prevalent in the country.
Director of Family Health in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Dr Bernard Madzima says 5,7 percent children under the age of five have global acute malnutrition.
“According to Zimvac Rapid Assessment Report, 2,1 percent children under five have severe acute malnutrition while 3,6 percent have moderate malnutrition,” he said.
He said, according to Zimvac, an overall increase in severe acute malnutrition (SAM) case-load was expected due to overall food insecurity situation.
Dr Madzima added that an estimated 153 878 children were moderately acute malnourished and required supplementary feeding.
“According to Zimvac, an estimated 89 762 children under five will be admitted into the outpatient care for treatment of severe acute malnutrition.
“Additionally, 1 464 children under five will undergo treatment in the stabilisation centres.
“About 14 000 pregnant and lactating women in the country will also require support with supplementary feeding and micro-nutrient supplementation,” he added.
Zimbabwe is facing its worst malnutrition rates in 15 years, as nearly 33 000 children are in urgent need of treatment for acute malnutrition. As an El Nino-induced drought sweeps across large parts of the country, the number of hungry families in the country has doubled in the past eight months.
“Children are enduring the greatest force of this crisis,” said acting UNICEF Zimbabwe Representative Dr Jane Muita.
“We have not seen these levels of malnutrition in more than 15 years and although the Government and its partners are doing their best to assist, more needs to be done to prevent this crisis from spiralling out of control.”
The Government received boxes of nutrition supplies Ready-To-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) for the management of severe acute malnutrition.
Distribution of RUTF is ongoing in 81 health facilities in four targeted districts, which are Masvingo, Matabeleland North and South and Midlands.
Ready-To-Use Supplementary Food (RUSF) has also been purchased for the 81 health facilities in the four targeted districts for management of moderate acute malnutrition (MAM).
Zimbabwean children who go to school are lucky as government and its NGO partners have promised to provide supplementary feeding.
Cabinet approved a $200 million National Schools Feeding Scheme to feed four million pupils when the second term of 2016 opens.
Primary and secondary Education Deputy Minister Professor Paul Mavhima said the feeding programme would become a permanent feature to be extended beyond the drought period.
The children will be given the staple sadza, beans, or vegetables for lunch, while porridge will be served for breakfast.
“Government has approved a $199 million proposal for the National Schools Feeding Scheme.
“This means we will receive a portion of the amount that will be raised from the Emergency Food Relief Programme currently underway. The criteria of age groups will depend on the food that we would have received. We will obviously start with the infants and provinces that are hard hit by the drought . . . ” he said.
Government has also responded by doing a door to door nutrition assessment programme for children aged five in order to identify cases of malnourishment.
UNICEF received $1 732 576 from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to respond to the prevailing situation yet Zimbabwe requires $12,2 million.
Government appealed for $1,6 billion for feeding programmes and future capacity building.
The risks of under five malnutrition have come with El Nino are not confined to Zimbabwe.
The drought has torn into several African countries leaving children exposed and also many not attending school.
Lesotho, Zimbabwe and most provinces in South Africa have declared a state of disaster in the face of growing resource shortages.
In Ethiopia, the number of people in need of food assistance is expected to increase from over 10 million to 18 million by the end of 2016.
Children may frequently not attend or drop out of school for a numbers of reasons including having to walk long distances to fetch water or work to support their families, or inability to focus in class due to lack of food.
At the end of last year, Unicef conducted an analysis on the impact of the drought on education in the six most affected regions of Somalia (Afar, Amhara, Oromia, SNNPR, Tigray and Somali). In Somali region, 67 primary schools have been formally closed as a result of the drought, directly affecting 14 000 school children.
There are also 25 school communities hosting children from internally displaced communities, stretching the limited resources available within the schools.
72 percent (6 987 primary schools) of the primary schools in the six regions have no water available on school premises, reaching a staggering 83 percent of primary schools in Oromia Region.
Almost one million children are in need of treatment for severe acute malnutrition in Eastern and Southern Africa.
Across the region, millions of children are at risk from hunger, water shortages and disease.
It is a situation aggravated by rising food prices, forcing families to implement drastic coping mechanisms such as skipping meals and selling off assets.
“The El Niño weather phenomenon will wane, but the cost to children – many who were already living hand-to-mouth – will be felt for years to come,” said Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala, Unicef Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa.
“Governments are responding with available resources, but this is an unprecedented situation. Children’s survival is dependent on action taken today.”
In its latest briefing on the impact of El Niño on children in the region, Unicef said two seasons of failed rains in Ethiopia meant that nearly six million children currently require food assistance, with school absenteeism increasing as children are forced to walk long distances in search of water.
According to the report, more than two thirds of Somali children – those in urgent need of assistance – are displaced populations.
In Lesotho, one quarter of the population are affected. This aggravates grave circumstances for a country in which 34 percent of children are orphans, 57 percent of people live below the poverty line, and almost one in four adults live with HIV/Aids.
Malawi is facing the worst food crisis in nine years, with 2,8 million people (more than 15 percent of the population) at risk of hunger; cases of severe acute malnutrition have just jumped by 100 percent in just two months, from December 2015 to January 2016.
In Angola, an estimated 1,4 million people are affected by extreme weather conditions and 800 000 are facing food insecurity, mainly in the semi-arid southern provinces.
The UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs estimates that it will take affected communities approximately two years to recover from El-Nino exacerbated drought, if agricultural conditions improve in the latter half of this year.
With the drought still tearing into Africa, it is important for governments to prioritise the nutritional needs of children.