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Malawi leader declares state of disaster
by Raphael Tenthani

The Associated Press    Translate This Article
15 October 2005

BLANTYRE, Malawi (AP) - A worsening food crisis threatening millions of people prompted Malawi's president on Saturday to declare the impoverished African nation a ``disaster area'' and call for more international aid.

Drought has slashed the production of maize, a staple for the poor southern African nation. Malawi faces persistent food insecurity, but this year threatens to be the worst in a decade, partly because high HIV infection rates have left farmers too sick with AIDS to plant or tend their crops.

President Bingu wa Mutharika said the crisis was threatening 5 million of the country's 11 million people.

``I declare all 28 districts of Malawi disaster areas,'' he said in a nationally broadcast address. ``The food crisis has escalated, and we need more assistance.''

Adding to Malawi's problems was looming political turmoil. Parliament on Friday started impeachment procedures against the president—a 71-year-old economist—citing abuse of office. Mutharika dumped his party last year, a few months after being elected president, accusing powerful politicians of hampering his anti-corruption drive.

As the food crisis grew, Mutharika ignored earlier calls from the opposition and civil society leaders to declare a national disaster, which ensures that national resources are mobilized to fight the crisis and helps alert foreign donors.

Rafiq Hajat, who heads the Blantyre-based Institute for Policy Interaction think tank, accused government of allowing the situation to spiral out of control.

``We are a reactive society,'' Hajat said. ``When rains failed, we in the civil society called on government to set up a food committee. But we are now closing the door when the horse has already bolted.''

Parliamentary opposition leader John Tembo, of the Malawi Congress Party, also said the president acted too late.

``We have been singing this song for too long, but nobody in government seemed to listen,'' he said. ``Now that people are already dying, we are declaring national disaster ... it's too late.''

Mutharika defended his government, saying it had set up an emergency fund and had mobilized the donor community.

``It is not correct and fair that we have been insensitive to the plight of people,'' Mutharika said.

Malawi needs at least 2.31 million tons of maize to feed its population until the next harvest in March or April.

Mutharika said there were plans to spend $50 million on importing about 330,000 tons of maize from South Africa, but that Malawi would need an additional 158,000 tons because the crisis was worse than anticipated.

The United Nations has appealed for $88 million in aid for Malawi, but only $28 million has been received. Urgent appeals for seeds and fertilizers have gone virtually unheeded.

World Food Program spokesman Peter Smerdon said the U.N. body hoped Mutharika's declaration would lead to more foreign aid pledges.

``Time is running out fast,'' Smerdon said.

The situation is especially serious in the south, with many villagers surviving on water lily tubers—which often grow in waters infested with crocodiles.

Khalid Hassen, a professional hunter, said crocodile attacks occur almost daily at this time of year.

``People are faced with double tragedy: go for the bulbs and risk attack, or stay home and starve,'' he said.

Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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