LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A Scottish aid worker says panic is in the air in Zambia, as the southern African country experiences its worst food crisis in decades.

Zambia has been hit by a series of frequent and deadly droughts, floods and heat waves, which the United Nations says has caused it driest agricultural season in more than 40 years, with crops being wiped out and livestock killed.

Aisling Gallacher is an aid worker for SCIAF, the international relief agency for the Scottish Catholic Bishops’ Conference and recently visited the country.

“As I got off the plane, I saw a queue of 200 people at the supermarket. Inside the shop, bags of maize were being limited per person. People were running. Panic was in the air. I knew this was different from before,” she said.

On February 29, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema declared a national disaster and emergency due to the severe drought, which has left over 6.6 million people, including 3.5 million children, in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

“This drought requires concerted efforts. Far too many families in key affected districts are struggling to put food on their tables. There is evidence indicating that a nutrition crisis is likely to unfold in provinces where hunger and nutrient gaps are high if timely concrete prevention actions are not taken now,” Beatrice Mutali, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Zambia, said on June 28.

A SMART [Standardized Monitoring and Assessment of Relief and Transitions] survey conducted in May said more than half of the households in Zambia were already experiencing moderate to severe hunger, and estimated within the next 12 months, 51,948 children under the age of five in the 84 drought-affected districts would fall into severe wasting, and another 276,000 children under five would experience moderate wasting.

The SMART survey also found that nearly 112,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women were estimated to suffer from wasting, with about 13,000 facing its most severe form.

Gallacher said that with SCIAF, she has travelled regularly to Zambia over the past five years, but “nothing prepared me for my most recent trip.”

“On the drive to Mongu [the capital of Western Province in Zambia] – normally a spectacular journey through lush, green landscapes during the rainy season – I saw field after field of dried maize [corn]. Crisp, yellow, dead,” she said.

Gallacher said there was no rain on the horizon and climate shocks have made farming in Zambia extremely difficult.

“During the last rainy season there were only ten days of rain here. It should have rained every day from November until the end of February,” she said.

She also spoke about meeting a woman named Kashueka, a single mother with four children.

“I met her near her family’s field which was full of dead maize. Kashueka was forced to pick wild fruits and dig for roots just to put a meal on the table,” she said, adding SCIAF helped her with corn, cooking oil, and soya.

“This gave her children enough energy to go to school. But this support was only for three months, and when the rains didn’t come farmers like Kashueka knew there would be no harvest in May. The crops she had planted were dead,” Gallacher said.

“In Glasgow, my kids go to school with full bellies. Hers couldn’t go to school because they were so hungry. I came home determined to do what I could to help,” the Scottish aid worker said.

Gallacher also visited Kabwe, the capital of the Zambian Central Province, where SCIAF’s expert partners have been delivering complex farming programmes for several years. These projects focus on skills training in organic agriculture, alongside the provision of pigs and goats for natural manure.

“It was like a different world,” Gallacher said.

“Despite the drought and hunger crisis spreading across the country, I found communities coping well. People told me they would have enough food for their families despite the drought. They had stores of grain which they could turn to; they had access to water thanks to specially dug bore holes; and they have money saved for emergencies,” she explained.

She explained how SCIAF’s aid work helped countries develop better systems to combat the effects of climate change, using the work in Kabwe as an example.

“So this was the same country, with the same conditions, yet the people had enough to eat because they had been taught how to adapt around what Mother Nature threw at them. This is proof that donations from people in Scotland make a real and lasting difference in the world. It’s proof that SCIAF has a real solution to global hunger,” Gallacher said.

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