Several years of poor rainfall, compounded by the lack of a national food security policy and chronic poverty, has brought two million people – nearly one in three of Burundi’s population to the brink of starvation.
Without an urgent increase in food aid, thousands could die of hunger warns ActionAid. The World Food Programme and aid agencies are distributing emergency rations, but an estimated US$75 million of aid is still needed in order to avert disaster.
Malnutrition is widespread and hundreds have already died. Burundi’s main feeding centre in the town of Kirundo sees ten to 16 new cases of severe malnutrition each day. In the countryside many families are picking and cooking wild leaves in an attempt to satisfy their hunger. Malaria and other diseases are on the increase.
Poor rainfall over the past six years in the north, north-eastern and central provinces has brought starvation to areas which were traditionally regarded as Burundi’s food basket. Crops such as maize and sorghum have failed. Cassava has been wiped out by disease
Burundi used to receive reliable rains twice a year and had ample supplies of fresh food. Its farmers have never had to learn the techniques of irrigation and food preservation which are used by people in more arid areas to survive long periods without rain. The newly installed government is currently trying to rebuild a nation that has suffered the effects of 12 years of ethnic conflict and has not yet had the chance to devise detailed food security policies and planning systems.
Sam Braimah, director of ActionAid Burundi said: "We need a national food security policy that protects poor farmers in order to break the vicious circle of poverty, hunger and disease. But right now, the priority must be to feed people who have absolutely nothing left to eat."
Burundi is the second most densely populated country in Africa. A demographic explosion has resulted in the division of land into smaller and smaller plots. The legacy of a twelve year civil war and population pressure has led to degradation of the environment and the loss of most of Burundi’s forests.
Whilst the rainy season has now started, many plots have nothing growing on them because families have eaten the seed they saved from the last crop, and are too poor to buy new seeds and cuttings. Where the crops are growing, the farmers are not sure whether there will be enough rainfall to guarantee a good harvest.
Men have left their families to try to find casual work on farms in neighbouring provinces or across the border in Rwanda. Such work is scarce, short-term and poorly rewarded. Workers are generally paid in food and receive no cash.