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Update 00/02 on Angola: Improving health and economic security in Huambo region

20-06-2000 Operational Update


When hostilities between the Angolan government and UNITA resumed in December 1998, the ensuing insecurity touched off waves of internally displaced people who fled to provincial capitals or urban centres of Angola's central region in search of safe ground. The plight of these people has been complicated by regular plundering of farm produce, which leaves both the displaced and the resident populations indigent.

In September 1999, the ICRC embarked on emergency food programmes to meet the populations'increased needs. In a country that is made largely inaccessible by security concerns including, land mines, attacks on civilians and constantly shifting front lines, ICRC assistance was restricted to Huambo and other parts of the central Planalto region, such as Kuito, where the organization airlifts 2,600 tonnes of food supplies and seeds per month. Whereas food assistance in Huambo town was provided by the World Food Programme (WFP), the ICRC's focus was on semi-rural areas of Huambo and on the outskirts of Huambo city.

Owing to the positive impact of the general food programme and the harvest produced by the beneficiaries of the agricultural programme, in April 2000, the ICRC stopped food general assistance for a four-month period. The distribution of agricultural inputs will resume in June-July (for the nacas season) and autumn 2000 (for the lavras season). Based on the evaluation of the nutritional situation, the distri bution of food will probably resume in autumn 2000.

 Sliding towards starvation  

In March-April 1999, farmers harvested their crop ( lavra s) earlier than usual in order to forestall large-scale plundering. The result of this was insufficient and poor quality yields. Indications pointed to a gradual impoverishment of the population. By the end of June 1999, the nutritional situation was disconcerting, with the incidence of severe malnutrition reaching 30% (of the 10,570 people surveyed, 3,256 presented symptoms of severe malnutrition). The situation was attributed primarily to insecurity in the region, which sparked off displacements of populations and forced the closure of principal means of access (roads and airports), thereby paralysing trade. All NGOs involved in food assistance stepped up their nutritional rehabilitation efforts, their primary object being to meet the basic needs of malnourished populations. 

 In August 1999, the incidence of severe malnutrition surged to 40%, an extremely worrying percentage for this time of the year, just before the mid-October harvest ( nacas ). The incidence was comparable to rates recorded during certain major catastrophes, such as those in Ethiopia in 1995, Rwanda in 1992 or Somalia in 1992.

Difficult as they might be to assess, the quantities of food reaching Huambo perceivably diminished as time went by. At the end of August, estimates put the amount of cereal reaching Huambo at a mere five tonnes per day, yet daily needs were estimated at 60 tonnes. What is more, unseasonable weather conditions delayed the end of the nacas and lavras growing seasons by a month, meaning that harvests would be late and that food shortages would linger.

 ICRC response  

The ICRC developed a three-pronged strategy in an effort to rectify the prevailing nutritional situation. It focused its food and economic security programmes on the entire population on the outskirts of Huambo city and in outlying villages. The programmes assisted 54,000 families (or 270,000 people) comprising displaced persons and resident populations alike. Concurrently, WFP, with whom the ICRC coordinated its activities, conducted general food distributions (through SCF-UK) for 163,000 beneficiaries in Huambo city.

The ICRC's strategy involved:

1. organizing general distributions from mid-August 1999 in order to stem the deterioration in the populations'nutritional situation;

2. assistance in the form of seed distributions essentially aimed at invigorating food production;

3. consolidation of ICRC presence in the field with the object of providing a degree of protection for the population, and thereby considerably curbing the plundering of farm produce.

 ICRC programme implementation  

 July to December 1999:     

 a) Nacas minor growing season (planting in July, harvest in December)

The ICRC had identified 54,000 families as recipients of its programmes.

- The families received monthly half food rations (6 kg maize grits, 2 kg beans, 1 l oil and 150 g salt per person, or 1,200 kcal/person/day) in July, August and September. At this stage, the ICRC distributed over 3,200 tonnes of food as well as soap.

- Likewise, the ICRC concentrated on the distribution of seeds and other agricultural inputs for the nacas season (180 tonnes of maize seed, 60,000 kits of market gardening seed, 300 tonnes of fertilizer and 60,000 hoes).

- Despite bad weather conditions (rainy season), cumbersome logistics and a volatile security situation, this programme eased the way for the production of 2,340 tonnes of maize and some 6,000 tonnes of vegetables.

- Within the scope of its protection of civilians, the ICRC maintained regular dialogue with the authorities, both military and civilian, to remind them of their obligations towards the population.

 b) Lavras main growing season (planting in September, harvest in April/May)

The ICRC sustained its programmes for the same 54,000 families assisted during the nacas season.

- This process involved approximately 5,300 tonnes of food distributed in October, November and December.

- Furthermore, the families benefited from the distribution of 620 tonnes of maize, 310 tonnes of bean, 124 tonnes of sorghum and 62 tonnes of groundnut seeds, as well as 600 tonnes of fertilizer. This assistance yielded 20,800 tonnes in food produce.

Overall, with support in the form of seeds and other inputs, the beneficiaries were able to produce sufficient food to meet a third of their annual needs.

 January to April 2000  

Despite improvements in the nutritional situation in many areas of Huambo, the lean period persisted until the end of April 2000. Noting an increase in the number of people in need, the ICRC raised the number of recipients to 60,000 families (300,000 people, most of them newly displaced).

- Likewise, the ICRC sustained the food assistance programme (1,200 kcal/person/day).

- Meanwhile, the seed and agricultural inputs distributed in 1999 were expected to bear fruit with the lavras harvest (April - May).

- Within the scope of its protection of civilians, the ICRC maintained regular dialogue with the authorities, both military and civilian, to remind them of their obligations towards the population.

In April, the ICRC halted general food distribution as planned, the arrival of the harvest having enabled the populations to become self-sufficient for at least four months. In all, distributions of seeds and other agricultural inputs, made during the nacas and lavras seasons, enabled the people to produce   approximately 28,000 tonnes of food.

The positive aspect of these findings belies the fact that the nutritional situation remains fragile and could, without warning, deteriorate, for instance in the event of population displacements, insecurity, poor climate, post-harvest plundering. It has also been noted that some of the bairros in rural areas recorded more severe and worrying rates of malnutrition that others. Besides, in terms of nutrition, some displaced people, particularly those housed in collective centres, were worse off than those living amon g resident populations.

In addition to the target population receiving food and agricultural assistance, some 10,000 newly displaced people living in collective centres received food and material assistance.


 Impact of the programmes on population  

On the whole, the programmes had a very positive impact on the region's food security. In brief:

- food and seed distributions helped stabilize and improve food security in Huambo and its environs, thereby enhancing the populations'economic security;

- improved access to food has greatly enhanced the population's nutritional situation, with severe malnutrition slipping from nearly 40% in August 1999 to less than 3% in March 2000;

- the sustained presence of ICRC teams in the field had a positive effect in that looting declined, the presence was also seen in a positive light by the authorities. 

 Economic security  

Monthly questionnaires completed after every general food distributions have made it possible to gauge the general situation concerning food economy and provided insight on how distributed food and other commodities are used by the population.

A large percentage of WFP products found their way on to the market, which resulted in a decrease in consumer prices. Thus, although food prices remained high, the general distributions initiated in August by WFP and the ICRC stabilized and forced down food prices, for instance those of maize, thereby enhancing the populations'economic security.

In February, following the review of the findings of surveys conducted after general food distributions, the ICRC came to the conclusion that the food assistance it had provided was an appropriate response to the food crisis.


Stabilization of the populations'economic security measurably improved their health, as illustrated by the incidence of severe malnutrition which slipped from 31.3% in June 1999 to 12.3% in November 1999 and finally to 2.8% in March 2000.

The table   below sums up the findings of surveys conducted from June 1999 to March 2000 to assess the nutritional situation of various bairros in Huambo. Semi-rural and outlying regions of Huambo were divided into four areas in which a quarterly follow-up on the nutritional situation was conducted using the Quac-stick method (a method of body measurement which uses height and arm-circumference to determine the presence of acute malnutrition in children of 1 to 5).

 Survey results of Quac-stick measurements in Huambo region  




 Moderately wasted  

 Severely wasted  

Bilateral oedema


Sample size







Numbe r


1999 September








































2000 January






























The graph below, which is based on data from the table above, clearly illustrates the decline in malnutrition rates and the gradual improvement in the nutritional situation of the majority of the population. In March 2000, the nutritional situation of 60% of the population was considered to be satisfactory.



The overall results of the food and agricultural programmes encouraged the ICRC to:

  1) suspend general food distributions for a period of three - four months while continuing to monitor regularly the populations' food, economic and nutritional situations and thereby remain flexible to adapt the programme to evolving needs if necessary; food distributions will probably resume in October;  

  2) sustain food distributions for indigent population groups (the newly displaced, displaced people in collective centres, etc.);  

  3) continue agricultural programmes, notably seed multiplication and distributions planned for 67,000 families in Huambo and Kuito in June and September, and implemented in conjunction with food distributions in order to guard against consumption of the seeds;  

  4) continue water and sanitation programmes in order to improve the populations' living conditions.  


 Other programmes aimed at reviving economic security  

In addition to the emergency response in the form of food and seed distributions, the ICRC initiated a number of medium and long-term projects to enhance economic security and food production in the region. The projects are in their early stages and although it will not be possible to determine their impact for a few years, the first signs show promise.

- Seed multiplication in selected areas of Huambo. The project is still at the pilot stage, which inv olves the multiplication of maize, potato, bean, peanut, Soya and sorghum seeds, and has already produced its first yield of seeds. In all, 20 hectares were used for the project in 1999.

- Production of trees for fire wood and reforestation. The ICRC reforestation programme stayed on course during this period. Launched in Huambo and Kuito, it has so far produced 800,000 new trees including eucalyptus, fruit-tree varieties and firs. The ICRC ensured the implementation of the programmes by putting in place a " Food-for-Work " system for 250 workers.