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Robert Rotberg is founding director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and senior fellow of the Centre for International Governance Innovation.


Warming waters in the east Pacific Ocean – the El Nino effect – is causing a massive drought in southern Africa, with famine to follow. Zimbabwe, in the centre of the southern third of the African continent, usually receives about 300 millimetres (12 inches) of rain by the middle of what is now the southern hemispheric summer (October to April). By mid-January it had been blessed by only half of that amount in Harare, the capital. Farther south, toward the South African border, only 10 millimetres had fallen. Zimbabwe's major cities are rationing water already, with South Africa's cities next. The wealthy West should prepare itself to help.

Africans rely on rain to grow their crops. (There is very little irrigation, except on large corporate estates.) When rainfall is erratic, or absent, nothing can survive. Now, in southern Africa, the usually flowing rivers and streams are dry, groundwater is scarce, crops have failed, and cattle, sheep and goats (the local movable bank accounts) are dying in large numbers.

Southern African populations depend for food on maize (corn), a staple that in rural and some urban areas is the basis for two to three meals a day. South Africa needs a full seven million tonnes to feed its 53 million people across a normal year. But this year's crop yield, to be harvested in March and April, is estimated at a mere three million tonnes. Zimbabwe needs 2.7 million tonnes a year and is likely to obtain a mere 200,000 tonnes by April.

When it has had maize shortfalls in the past, often caused by political attacks on farmers by President Robert Mugabe's corrupt government, Zimbabwe regularly imported maize from South Africa. But supplies from its usually prosperous neighbour are unavailable this year.

The World Food Program (dependent on U.S. surplus corn) has been feeding about three million of Zimbabwe's 14 million residents for several years. Now the WFP and the faltering government of Zimbabwe will have to try to find maize supplies for many more millions. Barring the timely arrival of maize shipments from overseas donors, many millions could starve.

In Zimbabwe's case, April's maize shortfall can be supplemented by 400,000 tonnes in storage or already purchased and in transit. That leaves a shortfall of more than two million tonnes over the next 18 months (that is, until the rains of 2016-17 make possible a proper crop in April, 2017). Already, in many parts of the country, maize is either unavailable or exceedingly expensive (up by 400 per cent in some places). To make up such a major shortfall, Zimbabwe will have to import 120,000 tonnes a month through Mozambican and South African ports that are ill-equipped to handle that kind of tonnage month after month. Nor, at this point, do the local railways have sufficient working rolling stock to move such large amounts of maize rapidly. Zimbabwe also has insufficient cash to import food.

Resilience in the other poorer, rain-reliant countries of southern Africa – Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia – is as limited as it is in Zimbabwe. When Malawi has poor crop yields, its government has traditionally imported maize from South Africa and Zimbabwe, but that will be impossible this year and next. Zambia usually grows sufficient maize internally, but this year its farmers cannot. And Zambia and Malawi, like Zimbabwe, depend on distant ports and rail transport lines that will now be congested and expensive to operate.

Europe and North America need to be prepared to help remedy this newest global food emergency. Given the likelihood that large stretches of the Sahel – from Mauritania to Somalia – will also be suffering food shortages thanks to El Nino-impelled drought, the wealthy countries of the world and the countries that have surplus foodstuffs (preferably corn for southern Africans and other grains for the northerners) should prepare themselves to share. Otherwise, unless there is an unexpected sudden bonanza of rain (although it is almost too late in the south), many among the 80 per cent of Zimbabweans and 50 per cent of Malawians and Zambians who are formally unemployed will go hungry and many children will suffer from the wasting kwashiorkor disease. Those children will also be vulnerable to pneumonia and tuberculosis. It is time for the West to act.