Southern African governments and donors must respond swiftly to the regional drought emergency triggered by El Niño, aid agencies said on Thursday, with millions in the region facing hunger.
Responding to a statement on Wednesday by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) declaring a regional disaster, Oxfam, Save the Children and CARE said some 28-30 million people faced severe hunger, a figure that could rise quickly to 49 million if no action is taken.
"(We are) especially concerned about the impacts of the crisis on women and girls," said Emma Naylor-Ngugi of the humanitarian group CARE. "Increasingly, families are skipping meals and eating wild fruits to get by."
The agencies urged governments and donors to coordinate their responses to the drought, prompted by the powerful El Niño phenomenon, which has driven two consecutive bad harvests and the failure of life-supporting crops.
The drought has hit much of the region, including the maize belt in South Africa, the continent's most advanced economy and the top producer of the staple grain.
"Investing in a robust response was essential months ago and it is critical now," said Alan Paul of Save the Children's East and Southern Africa region.
Even though the powerful El Niño weather phenomenon blamed for the drought is forecast to dissipate in the coming months, its impact on people in affected countries will last far longer, the United Nations has warned.
Oxfam's Innocent Katsande urged all Southern African governments to declare the drought a disaster, pointing to Malawi as an example of a government that had not yet done so.
"Political leadership is crucial," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Governments need to coordinate their response to the crisis, bringing together donors and agencies."
SADC's announcement approved the creation of a regional logistics team to coordinate the immediate response, and urged member states to scale up technological development for agriculture, energy, and water, in order to mitigate the impact of climate change on the region's poorest people.
"This current phenomenon is a strong sign of what we can expect from a climate-changed world," said Oxfam's Daniel Sinnathamby.
"We need to meet people's immediate needs but we must address the longer-term issues which have made men, women and children in Southern Africa chronically vulnerable."
- Thomson Reuters Foundation