All of Zimbabwe's rain-fed crops have failed and the country only has a quarter of the food it will need for the next 12 months, according to UN agencies.
"I have never seen the country so dry and it is supposed to be end of the rainy season. I can't imagine what it will look like after the traditional dry season," UN Development Programme (UNDP) resident co-ordinator for Zimbabwe Victor Angelo told IRIN.
Angelo had just returned from chairing a weekend meeting of regional UNDP country coordinators where the grim regional food security predictions of the last few months appear to be coming true.
The latest harvest figures show that Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia and Lesotho are, as feared, going to be the worst off. Swaziland also faces serious food shortages and Botswana and Namibia, though battling, have resources to cope. Last week a government source said that northern Namibia's subsistence farmers could only expect one-third of their usual crops.
Zimbabwe tops the list with the second year in a row of poor harvests in the south and centre of the country. The only safe crop was commercially-farmed tobacco. Besides the drought and poor rainfall, commercial food production in Zimbabwe has also been disrupted by a land restitution programme.
"The northern provinces are better off but they produced barely enough for household subsistence and very little of this will reach the market. Zimbabwe's food stocks are exhausted so there is no stock. At least 1.5 million mt needs to be imported," Angelo said.
Malawi only has a 65 to 75 percent crop and will need to import at least 3.5 million mt. Last week field workers said that though the harvest had eased shortages slightly, at least three million people are still in need of food aid.
"South Africa, who would traditionally supply the region, only has a little to spare over their needs and have already committed their surpluses. There is not much left to buy so we have to get the private sector involved, and other humanitarian assistance," Angelo said.
The shortfalls would have to be imported from elsewhere like North and South America but some countries don't have the foreign currency to import, Angelo said.
His concerns are echoed in a recent Southern African Development Community (SADC) Food Security Network report that warned that the poor regional reserves and corresponding price increases will make it even harder to access extra food.
Angelo said: "Lesotho is also becoming very bad although it is completely out of the news." Lesotho has already declared a famine, while Zimbabwe and Malawi have declared disasters.
"It is a very serious crisis. We see the writing on the wall but that writing seems to be invisible. The key players don't seem to be paying attention," Angelo said. "They seem to be focused on Afghanistan, Angola, the Middle East. We need to create awareness of the situation."
Angelo said that to survive many people were eating wild fruit and berries and killing their livestock, confirming previous fears that most people had exhausted all their coping mechanisms.
The resident coordinators did find though that not all countries in Southern Africa are facing empty larders.
"Botswana and Namibia have problems but they have resources. Botswana is not a concern. It is a well-managed economy and can generate foreign currency to import when it needs to. However, they must be aware that the ports in the sub region will be under severe stress because of the imports for other countries and they must plan ahead," a statement released at the end of the resident coordinators meeting said.
The north of Mozambique is "fine" but areas in the centre and south are under stress, Angelo said. The stress in the south occurs frequently and they have traditional food assistance to count on.
"It is because these types of crises are predictable that they are therefore perfectly preventable," Angelo said in the statement.
The coordinators plan to give the points raised at the meeting to a multi-agency team currently finalising a regional food security assessment due for release in June.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions