Yet another food crisis is looming in drought-prone Malawi this year following a dry spell in the country's south and central regions.
Mzimba district in the northern region is one such area which did not receive any rainfall from the second week of February until the middle of March, when the young maize crop had already withered.
"You can see for yourself. The entire crop is useless... it is dry not because they have matured but because of the sun," Wanangwa Nhlema, a farmer in Mzima told IRIN.
Malawi last year had staged a slight recovery after a spell of three droughts in four years. At the height of the crisis about three million Malawians needed food aid; in January 2004, the number of beneficiaries had dropped to 400,000 people.
However, a recent Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) report warned that, "Coming on the heels of a bad year in 2003/04 in the south, [another] production failure... would likely result in severe household food shortage."
Juliana Banda, a mother of four and a farmer in Mzima, said the government should be prepared to keep ADMARC, the state grain marketer, stocked for the "impending food shortage".
In the Karonga district in the northern region, households have started employing coping mechanisms such as surviving on cassava and bananas and skipping meals.
Karonga's Rural Agricultural Division Programme Manager Emmanuel Ching'amba said the worst-hit areas were Lupembe in Karonga and Ntharile in Chitipa district.
Jimmy Mwalwanda, a farmer in Lupembe told IRIN, "We have lost everything. We will need to grow winter crops now."
After a tour of the drought-affected regions last week, Minister of Agriculture and Food Security Gwanda Chakuamba told journalists that the government would buy 40,000 mt of maize.
"We now have 60,000 mt of maize in the reserve... Government has plans to help those that have been badly hit with some seeds for winter crops," he said.
President Bingu wa Mutharika told donors in the capital, Lilongwe, that Malawi would be facing a food shortage and appealed for assistance. He called on both government and its development partners to explore long and short-term measures for arresting pernnial food shortages.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has been providing emergency food assistance to 1.3 million vulnerable people under its regional Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation since January. "We are ready to scale-up our operations which ends this month," said the agency's spokeswoman Antonella D' Aprile.
"We are awaiting the results of the VAC [Vulnerability Assessment Committee] assessments due next month to get a clear picture of the number of people who would need assistance from the harvest period which starts in April," she added.
Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe told IRIN last month that the government had put in place measures to alleviate the food shortage. "If the food situation reached crisis point, government will take some money from other programmes and buy maize. We are also working with WFP on this issue to sort out the food crisis," he said.