Before the recent famine in Niger there was a long period when there were increasingly strong appeals for aid, but nothing happened. We have now reached that time in Malawi — and people have already begun to die.
Perhaps four million people are facing starvation in Malawi, and there are millions of others at risk in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and Namibia.
Remember all the hype around the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, where it was said that the world leaders would “make poverty history”?
Now these great powers cannot give a day’s military spending to save 12 million people on the edge of starvation in southern Africa.
At the beginning of this week the United Nations World Food Programme said it remained £100 million short of the £225 million it estimates it needs to feed those affected.
Some children have already died from eating poisonous roots, which they had been forced to scavenge after food ran out.
Others have been killed by crocodiles while collecting water lilies to keep themselves alive.
If you are rich enough there is food. But the price of maize is rising steeply. Once more the market will decide who lives and who dies.
Maize prices in several districts of southern Malawi have risen to over 30 kwacha (13p) per kilogramme and other districts are now selling maize at over 25 kwacha (10p) per kilogramme—a 70 percent price increase.
This is well beyond the means of the poorest people.
Three years ago the head of the International Monetary Fund admitted that international bankers had forced Malawi to sell grain just as a famine began in order to repay debts.
This time round the pressure is on from the deal agreed at Gleneagles. If Malawi keeps to the “free market” course then it will get debt relief. If it interferes with these processes then it will not.
British international development minister Gareth Thomas has now called for action over the famine, but aid is all linked to cutting the state budget. This is not the time for the state to withdraw from society.
Let nobody say they do not know what is happening in southern Africa. The window of opportunity is closing fast.
It is not that we are beggars. But agriculture has been hit hard by drought and the continuing toll of HIV/Aids.
Famine could be avoided by proper planning. In southern Malawi’s drought-hit Nsanje district there is a 12 hectare lush green field of maize that will be harvested by the end of November.
It is perhaps the only food output in the district in many months.
The farm is part of a pilot irrigation scheme called Sapatongwe. It was set up as a cooperative venture between 96 farmers from vulnerable households who have dug canals from the river to their fields.
Almost all of Malawi’s farmers could have access to a body of water—a river or one of the country’s five lakes—which could be used for irrigation. But there are no quick profits to be made from these schemes, so such projects do not happen.