At least 10 million people in four Southern African countries are threatened by "potential famine" and the figure is expected to rise when reports from two other countries are completed, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) warned in a joint statement on Wednesday.
The results of recent joint missions to Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland revealed that "millions of people are on the brink of starvation", and that they will face grave food shortages as early as June, which would continue up to the next main harvest, in April 2003.
The overall picture will become even bleaker when the report on Zambia and another on some parts of Mozambique are added to the assessment of an already critical humanitarian situation, the two food agencies noted.
"Two successive years of poor harvests caused by natural calamities, coupled with economic crises and disruption of farming activities in parts, have slashed food production and availability across the region, resulting in one of southern Africa's worst agricultural disasters in a decade," the joint statement said.
Over the next year, nearly 4 million mt of food will need to be imported to meet the minimum food needs of the sub-region's population. Almost 10 million people in the famine-threatened countries need immediate emergency food assistance of some 1.2 million mt.
Given the gravity of the findings, FAO and WFP have called on donor governments worldwide to respond quickly and generously with food aid donations to "avoid widespread hunger from developing into a humanitarian disaster". They said their teams had been struck by the scarcity of maize at harvest time, prompting the need for an immediate response.
A WFP official told IRIN that "if we act quickly enough we could avert something major ... People are hungry now, but by September the situation could be extremely dire". He added that HIV/AIDS was exacerbating the impact of the food shortages on people and communities.
The situation in Zimbabwe was particularly perilous. "Zimbabwe is facing a serious food crisis, even at harvest time, and unless international food assistance is provided urgently and adequately, there will be a serious famine and loss of life in the coming months," said the country report. Some six million people in rural and urban areas are estimated to need emergency food aid.
The longest dry spell experienced in Zimbabwe in 20 years has made the food situation especially dire.
"This has been compounded by the sharp fall in maize produced by commercial farmers who normally produce one-third of the total cereals, but whose farming operations were disrupted by the ongoing land reform activities and widespread illegal invasions. The overall cereal deficit is a staggering 1.5 million mt, even taking into account anticipated commercial imports and pledged food aid," the FAO/WFP statement said.