HIV/AIDS deepens food crisis in southern Africa

Severe food shortages in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe — and in parts of South Africa — are being worsened by HIV/AIDS. The disease is having "dramatic" effects on agriculture, a UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) expert has told the Bulletin.

According to Marcella Villarreal, FAO's Chief of the Population and Development Service and focal point for HIV/AIDS, the disease will cut agricultural labour by nearly a quarter in Zimbabwe by 2020. In Malawi, HIV/ AIDS is even causing long-term soil erosion as labour-intensive contour ridges, used by farmers in 30% of the country to protect soil from rainwater run-off, are going unrepaired, Villareal says.

The governments of Malawi, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Zambia have already declared their food shortages national disasters, while Angola, Swaziland, Mozambique and parts of South Africa are also battling with food shortages. Other than HIV/AIDS, the causes vary from country to country, and are said to include drought, floods, disruptions to commercial farming, depletion of strategic grain reserves, poor economic performance, foreign exchange shortages, delays in the importation of maize, and price increases which have left some families scraping the roads for seeds dropped by passing lorries.

FAO estimates that countries in the sub-region will need to import almost 3.2 million tons of food in the next nine months to feed the 13 million people most vulnerable to starvation.

Meanwhile some 28 million people living with HIV/AIDS are in southern Africa, which has the highest prevalence rate in the world. Crop production by small-scale and subsistence farmers, many of whom are women, has been hit by sickness, time spent looking after sick relatives, and loss of income.

South African researchers led by Professor Steven Oni recently reported that rural households affected by HIV/ AIDS had a far lower yearly income (rand 13000, i.e. US$1300) than the unaffected households (rand 20000 or US$2000). HIV/AIDS-hit households spent more on medical care and hospital bills, transport and funerals, but less on housing and education.

Oni and his team also found that households met part of the cost of AIDS by selling their goats and chickens and taking their children out of school.

Villarreal says FAO has calculated the impact of HIV/AIDS on the loss of agricultural labour in all 25 countries most affected by HIV/AIDS (except Lesotho and Swaziland). The results show for example that by 2020 23% of Zimbabwe's agricultural workers will have died, with Mozambique losing 20% and Malawi 14%.

"On top of that, another study shows that by the time a person dies of AIDS, two person-years of labour have been lost — not only because of the incapacity of the patient, but because of the care that others have to provide, and because in many places people can't work during funerals, and so on" says Villarreal. "So we calculate that since at least seven million agricultural workers have died in these 25 most- affected countries, 14 million person- years of agricultural work have already been lost — quite apart from loss following their deaths."

HIV/AIDS also impoverishes the household, so affected families are less able to buy food, says Villarreal. "We've not calculated the total effect, but a number of different studies show the impact. For example one study from Ethiopia shows that the cost of caring for one person and for the funeral are higher than the average farm income for a whole year. This is absolutely dramatic. And there are a number of cultural issues: for example, for a funeral to count as a funeral livestock must be slaughtered, and by slaughtering livestock you are losing your medium-term savings as well as your immediate food."

Unfortunately, people are not fully aware of this, but HIV/AIDS has become a major part of the food crisis in southern Africa, Villarreal says.

Robert Walgate, Bulletin
Kerry Cullinan, Durban

World Health Organization Genebra - Genebra - Switzerland