29 July 2003, Rome -- Despite better harvests and more availability of food, the recovery of agriculture in southern Africa remains very fragile and many rural communities are still in need of urgent agricultural relief aid over the next 12 months, FAO said today.

As part of a UN Inter-Agency appeal launch, FAO is seeking $43 million to save and enhance livelihoods in support of more than 6.5 million people, of whom many are severely affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

"Thanks to better weather conditions and the delivery of agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, food production has improved in some areas," said Anne M. Bauer, Director of FAO's Emergency Operations and Rehabilitation Division. "But the worst is not over yet. Many of the most vulnerable rural families are still relying on international assistance for their immediate survival in the months to come."

The impact of HIV/AIDS

"The impact of HIV/AIDS on agricultural production is devastating," Bauer said. "The pandemic is driving entire households and communities to levels of destitution and misery from which they cannot recover without assistance. Many people rely on agriculture for their survival. We need to target and assist these people, to make sure that they can continue and adapt their farming activities despite the serious situation they are facing."

FAO said that harvests in 2003 have improved compared with the previous year in some countries, but agricultural production still remains below the average of the last five years. Vulnerability across the region remains significantly high, while in Zimbabwe and in parts of southern Mozambique the situation is critical.

The causes of the crisis

The crisis in southern Africa has been exacerbated by drought, deteriorating economic conditions, an increase in chronic poverty and the interruption of commercial farming activities in Zimbabwe, FAO said.

In addition, climatic variability, soil deterioration, ineffective water control, inadequate farming techniques, reduction of technical advisory services, poor infrastructure, trade barriers and HIV/AIDS related mortality continue to undermine food production and income generation from agriculture. If parents fall sick or die, the responsibility for growing food often rests with their children, orphaned by the pandemic, and with the elderly.

Livestock is depleted beyond normal levels in several areas, notably in Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe due to disease and the socio-economic situation, the UN agency said.

FAO is currently working with veterinary officers from the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), assessing the magnitude and necessary intervention measures against transboundary livestock diseases such as foot-and-mouth and contagious bovine pleuro-pneumonia.

Targeting the most vulnerable

With programmes in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, FAO would give support to increase agricultural production and incomes, to diversify production activities and crop varieties, to promote labour-saving practices to improve nutrition and drought resilience, and mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS.

The activities will focus on the most vulnerable households, often headed by women, youth and orphans. FAO will closely collaborate with other UN agencies, as well as governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Southern Africa has the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, with up to 33 percent of the adult population in the region being HIV positive.

An estimated 15 million people, of whom 58 percent are women, are living with HIV/AIDS in the six countries, and there are strong indications that the prevalence rates have not yet peaked. In 2001, half a million people died of AIDS-related diseases in the region, leaving 2.5 million orphans.

FAO has developed agricultural strategies that reduce the workload of HIV/AIDS affected households.

These include labour-saving practices, training in income generating activities, small-scale irrigation, crop diversification and winter cropping. The promotion of drought-tolerant legumes and crops, small-scale poultry, soil management techniques, and school gardens will also be part of FAO's programme.

In 2002/03, FAO received around $11 million to directly assist more than one million people in the region. In addition, FAO helped coordinate and provided technical assistance to improve the quality of activities provided by other agricultural relief efforts.

FAO projects included assistance to conservation farming and seed-multiplication in Zambia, crop diversity through cassava production in Malawi, the distribution of agricultural inputs in Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe and vegetable garden and seed fair initiatives in Mozambique.

Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 53105