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A long drought in Zambia has left people with no crops or money for food

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Across Southern Africa, people are going hungry because of drought. The problem is most acute in four countries that border each other - Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. According to the U.N.'s World Food Program, some 21 million people are impacted in those four nations alone. Cindy McCain is the executive director of the WFP, and she joins us from Zambia. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CINDY MCCAIN: Thank you - glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about where you are and what you're seeing.

MCCAIN: Well, presently, I'm in Zambia, and I came down here to take a look for myself what climate change and particularly drought has done to this country. This country at one point was the bread basket for the region and for the world and now is devastated from drought. And, of course, the crops are dying or are already dead, and people are going hungry as a result of it because their income has been dashed.

SHAPIRO: The WFP says people are experiencing, quote, "emergency levels of food insecurity." What does that actually look like in day-to-day life?

MCCAIN: Well, when you have a community that - who - everybody's crop has failed completely means several things. No. 1, they don't get - have an income as a result of it, and No. 2, they have no food stores to get them through the lean season on the other side. So everyone that's lost their crop this year will not have anything, if at all, if they can get it to grow until next May. And so somehow, we have to figure out how we cannot just keep them fed but also make sure that their livelihoods are salvaged just to a degree.

SHAPIRO: You say you need to make sure people get fed in the short term and have livelihoods in the long term. What does that involve? I mean, what is WFP actually doing in the region?

MCCAIN: Really, it's our resilience work that is the background of what we do - the backbone of what we do, I should say - because it gives people the opportunity to not only be self-sufficient because of the tools or the seeds or the boreholes or the different kinds of water projects that we help them develop, but it also enables them to feed their communities as well. And so we have a lot of different projects going on in Zambia to do just that because every community is a little bit different. But water is the biggest issue here, obviously.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about somebody you met whose story really stays with you?

MCCAIN: Yeah. I met a female farmer today, and she - her crop was completely gone. I mean, she lost everything. She and her husband who said that, usually, from year to year, they'd get about 75 bags off their land of maize - and instead, this year they got one bag. And so now they cannot feed their children, and they have nothing to live on or be able to eat on as well until next May. So what I - I mean, this woman was devastated, and she was embarrassed. And you know, what we do is, of course, is try to help mitigate the effects of climate change but also help them through small cash support or through various partners around Zambia, help support themselves and get them through this tough time.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned that this drought is connected to climate change. Short-term, scientists say this is a result of El Nino, a recurring weather pattern that's associated with lower rainfall. But long-term, the planet is warming, and that will have a significant impact on countries like Zambia.

MCCAIN: Yeah. It will.

SHAPIRO: And so what are the long-term strategies to make agriculture sustainable in this part of the world, where extreme weather is going to become more common and more extreme?

MCCAIN: It is. Well, first of all, there's such a thing as drought-resistant crops. So these are seeds and seedlings that are - have been bred to be resistant to drought. And so they're much - they're a little bit better to grow in a situation like this. Also, water projects - water is the main event here and being able to not only manage water but find water in many cases and make sure the water's clean and usable but also sustainable. So boreholes are a big part of what we do as well.

SHAPIRO: Cindy McCain is the executive director of the World Food Program, speaking with us from Zambia. Thank you so much.

MCCAIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.