Currency Blight Seen Deepening Southern Africa Drought Peril

  • UN aid agency says 14 million people in region face hunger
  • Falling currencies could make food imports unaffordable

Preventing a humanitarian disaster as drought grips southern Africa is made harder by plunging currencies driving up the cost of importing food, the World Food Programme said.

“Everyone is working to try and address a situation that is evolving very quickly to avoid what could be a disaster from what is now a crisis,” Ertharin Cousin, executive director at the aid organization, said in an interview in Magoye, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. Fourteen million people in the region face hunger as an El Nino weather system causes parched earth and withered crops, according to the WFP, a United Nations agency.

South Africa may have to import almost half of its corn requirements this year, and Zambian President Edgar Lungu has said there is a “strong indication” his country too will need to source the staple food from abroad. The last time the country imported significant amounts of corn was 1997, according to the Zambia National Farmers’ Union. South Africa’s rand has lost 31 percent of its value against the dollar in the past 12 months, while the Zambian kwacha has fallen 43 percent.

Regional governments are working to address looming food shortages “at a time when we’re seeing economic challenges as well that’s affecting the rand, that’s affecting the currency here in Zambia, balancing what could become a perfect storm,” Cousin said. Southern African nations will need to find 10.9 million metric tons of crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans, according to Senzeni Zokwana, South Africa’s agriculture minister.

Currency Challenge

“The challenge that you have is currency,” Cousin said. “Where you’re talking about moving stocks from Brazil, America, Australia, it’s all in dollars,” she said. “If the South African rand and other currencies are seeing significant drops in their valuations, it’s going to limit their abilities to buy sufficient quantities to fill the gap of what they don’t harvest this year.”

South Africa last year had the least rainfall since records began in 1904, and the country’s corn production declined 30 percent last year to 9.9 million tons, according to the nation’s Crop Estimates Committee. Zambia’s harvest could drop by more than 30 percent this year to a seven-year low if current weather patterns persist, a farmers’ lobby group said Monday.

Drought in most Zambian provinces is threatening corn production this year, according to the meteorological department.

Bishop Mweene, a farmer in Zambia’s Southern province, usually has a corn crop that reaches about chest height by this time of year. On Jan. 16, it was barely up to his knees, and some fields had withered and died, he said, speaking in the local Tonga language through an interpreter. In December, it only rained at his farm for 8 days compared with the usual 21 days, bringing about 42 percent of the average precipitation for the period.

“The situation so far is causing concern among farmers,” said Kingsley Kaswende, spokesman for the farmers’ union. “By the beginning of January, most productive areas in the central, southern and eastern regions had received below normal rainfall. Most crops that are not under irrigation are showing signs of stress.” Almost all of Zambia’s corn crop relies on rain for moisture.

Power Crisis

The lack of rain has also contributed to Zambia’s worst power crisis yet, curbing industrial and mining output in Africa’s second-biggest copper producer at a time when metal prices have fallen to 2009 lows. South Africa’s economy probably grew at the slowest pace in six years in 2015, according to the central bank, under strain from tumbling commodity prices.

“What we need to do as the international community is ensure that we are prepared” to assist countries in the region, Cousin said. “What we don’t want is a situation where we wait, as the international community, until babies start to die or until we see chronic cases of malnourished children.”

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