With early indications pointing to a renewed humanitarian emergency in Southern Africa, there is concern that a lack of funding could prevent aid agencies from meeting the needs of the region's vulnerable people.
In its latest situation report the World Food Programme (WFP) noted that "the extended dry spells in January and February, at the most critical stage of the cereal crop development, are likely to result in a significant reduction in the harvest".
"At least six governments ... are calling for crop and food supply assessment missions to be undertaken and coordinated with the Food and Agriculture Organisation," WFP said.
Earlier this month the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) noted that the dry spells had come on the back of a generally poor rainy season, coupled with the reported poor availability of agricultural inputs at the start of the agricultural season, "is expected to result in reduced crop yields, and subsequent production shortfalls".
FEWS NET said the "areas affected include southern and central Malawi (particularly southern Malawi), southern and central Mozambique, southern half of Zimbabwe, Swaziland, northern-most parts of South Africa, southern Zambia, and Botswana".
WFP spokesman Mike Huggins told IRIN that although the extent of crop failures would only be known after thorough assessments had been conducted, "it is shaping up to be a very hard year ahead for many countries" in the region.
"Many will be facing harvests similar to 2002, which saw a major humanitarian response to feed millions of people - initial indications are that it is along those lines," Huggins added.
Aid agencies estimated in July 2002 that some 13 million people in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland required emergency food aid in 2002/03.
"Given the erratic weather patterns, poorer farmers' inability to access seed and fertiliser, and the deadly cocktail of HIV/AIDS across the region - with weakened populations already spending money on medication, hospital bills and funerals rather than on planting - WFP is concerned about the harvest prospects in the region," he noted.
As to whether a new emergency would elicit a prompt and generous response from donors, Huggins pointed out that the current Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO) for the region was severely underfunded. The PRRO aims to support the recovery of vulnerable population after years of food shortages have eroded their ability to cope with shocks, such as drought.
"Obviously, if you look at the current funding of the PRRO it's dramatically underfunded - we have about US $50 million towards our appeal for $500 million for the programme. We have a fraction of what we need to carry out feeding programmes at the moment, so, in the context of worse than expected harvests all over the region, we are going to face a rather dire situation for millions of people who are going to need food aid," Huggins warned.
Crop and food supply assessment missions should begin around mid-April, he said, which would give governments, aid agencies and donors a clearer indication of harvests, food reserves and shortfalls.