Aid agencies on Monday welcomed the new power-sharing government in Zimbabwe as giving hope that they will be able to step up food deliveries to millions of people facing hunger and worse.
"The food situation in Zimbabwe has reached crisis point," said Matthew Cochrane of the international Red Cross. "There are already more than 2 million people who don't have food, and that number is going to rise to 5 million, which is about half the country's population, by the end of the year."
Some agencies have been gearing up to provide more aid since the government started easing restrictions recently, but they expressed caution.
"We don't know whether the new power sharing government will make any changes to the rules and regulations around humanitarian assistance," Richard Lee of the U.N.'s World Food Program said.
But Lee said in a telephone interview from Johannesburg, South Africa, that the political settlement should improve political stability and allow the World Food Program and its partner organizations to work.
In June, President Robert Mugabe's government restricted the work of aid agencies, accusing them of siding with the opposition before a presidential runoff. The ban was lifted last month, but aid agencies say it takes time to gear up.
Kenneth Walker of CARE International said, "Any movement toward ending the political crisis in Zimbabwe has got to positively affect the humanitarian situation. So we are very hopeful, very happy, that that kind of progress seems to be under way with this power-sharing agreement."
Cochrane, South Africa-based spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said the agency was ready to start food distribution this week under a 27.7 million Swiss franc (US$24.5 million) fundraising appeal launched a month ago.
"We had fairly slow donor response at first, but since then it's really built up quite dramatically so we've been able to procure the initial supplies," he said. "Obviously we need ongoing support. This is a nine-month operation."
Program to target neediest
The program will target 260,000 of the neediest people across Zimbabwe, Cochrane said.
But many more are in severe need, he added.
"I was in Zimbabwe last week in Masvingo province which is in the south and one of the worst areas affected," Cochrane said. "The situation was a lot worse than I thought it would be. You've got people who don't have any access at all to food.
"Even people with money can't get food. There's no food on the shelves. The supermarkets we went into, they had mineral water and tea leaves. That was the sum of their supplies."
He said the food shortages hinder the Red Cross's efforts to deliver antiretroviral drugs to HIV-infected people in Zimbabwe, because the lack of food makes them feel too sick when they take the medication.
"We're seeing a lot of people defaulting on their treatment," Cochrane said. "The body needs food to absorb any kind of medication, but it is particularly important with ARTs (antiretroviral therapies)."
Side effects like "skull-splitting migraines, extreme exhaustion and nausea" lead people to stop taking drugs even though it means they might quickly die of AIDS.
"Once they've stopped taking the drugs, the virus comes back with a vengeance," Cochrane said. "They just feel so ill that they'd rather have a day without feeling ill than the security that the drugs bring them."
The Red Cross program also is distributing seed and fertilizer to 20,000 farmers in hopes of improving next year's harvest, Cochrane said.
The food shortages follow a record poor harvest this year and bad harvest last year.