The current food and humanitarian situation and outlook in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) give cause for serious concern. Since the beginning of August, the country has yet again been plunged into civil strife, barely a year after the insurgency that toppled the former government. To-date, the most affected parts of the country are the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu which are currently in rebel hands, and the south-western part stretching from the estuary of the Congo river, including the towns of Banana, Mwanda, Boma and Kitona, the strategically important port of Matadi and the main hydroelectric power station at Inga, to the capital, Kinshasa. Reports indicate that most of this latter area has been recaptured by government troops supported by intervention forces from some neighbouring countries, but with considerable loss of life and population displacement.
During the brief period this south-western part was in rebel hands, the country's access to shipping routes in the Atlantic Ocean were cut off, causing prices of imported commodities, including foodstuffs, in Kinshasa and other urban centres to rise sharply, seriously reducing access to food by the urban poor. The situation was aggravated by electricity cut-offs by the insurgents in control of the Inga power station which supplies electricity to Kinshasa, Brazzaville in the neighbouring Republic of Congo, as well as to the copper mining centres in Shaba Province in the south-east, resulting in widespread disruption of industrial and commercial activities, including food distribution.
The eastern part of DRC faces a far bigger humanitarian crisis should the fighting escalate as seems probable with devastating regional food supply implications and a humanitarian tragedy that could engulf the whole of the Great Lakes region and beyond. In the first place, this part of DRC has been in a state of insecurity since the Rwandan refugee crisis of 1994, with various armed militias terrorising the local population. It has been estimated that over 80 percent of the rural population in North and South Kivu have been forced to flee their homes at least once in the last 12 months. This constant population displacement has taken a heavy toll on local food production and the local economy, resulting in widespread food supply difficulties and high rates of malnutrition.
The natural hazards have also played their role in undermining the food security situation in the country. The El Niņo-related heavy rains and severe flooding during the first cropping season of 1998 (season A) which caused extensive damage to crops and infrastructure (roads, bridges, railways) aggravated the already precarious food situation of most households. Furthermore, many farming households were unable to take full advantage of the favourable weather conditions during the just-ended season B largely due to lack of inputs. In addition, humanitarian assistance has been very limited due to security problems.
Thus, an intensification of the conflict in the eastern region of the country would have serious consequences for a population already made vulnerable by a combination of circumstances. Season A is just starting in the Great Lakes region; intensified conflict would hamper farming activities and result in severe food shortages in the coming months, aggravating the precarious food supply situation in eastern DRC. More significantly, large-scale population movements can be expected in search of both food and safety, both within DRC and to neighbouring countries. The countries likely to suffer the most from the conflagration are Rwanda and Burundi, both struggling with their own internal conflicts and food supply problems, and therefore the least able to withstand an influx of refugees. Already, reports indicate that refugees from DRC are entering Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania. Other countries which are also likely to be affected include the Republic of Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Central African Republic and even Angola. It is therefore essential that the international community and the concerned governments urgently put in place contingency plans if another major humanitarian crisis is to be avoided.
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