The food situation in Southern Africa remained grave and could deteriorate into a large scale famine if international assistance continued to be slow and inadequate, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned.
"There is urgent need to expedite commercial imports and food aid distributions to avert a major humanitarian catastrophe in Southern Africa," a report released in Rome on Tuesday said.
The report comes amid regional warnings of poor rainfall figures and inadequate planting levels which could adversely affect next year's crops.
FAO researchers said that in Zambia the situation of about 2.9 million people, or 25 percent of the population, was "of grave concern" and was particularly serious for vulnerable people in remote areas who had exhausted their food stocks at the same time as maize prices had increased rapidly.
In Zimbabwe, where the annual inflation rate hit 175 percent this year, severe shortages of basic foods including maize, milk, bread and sugar were reported across the country and increasing cases of malnutrition were reported from different areas.
About half the population, or 6.7 million people would need emergency food by March, mostly in rural areas and despite efforts by humanitarian organisations and the government to import maize, the actual level of imports remained low.
Earlier this month a concerned World Food Programme (WFP) told IRIN that it did not have enough food to reach its target of feeding three million people in November, forcing it to prioritise who could be fed.
Food distributions in Malawi during October provided relief to about 2,3 million people but despite the improvement of the overall supply, there were serious food access problems due to high prices, the FAO report said.
In Namibia, 345,000 people needed food assistance due to a prolonged dry spell.
In Madagascar, a relatively good crop was overshadowed by the lingering effects of the political crisis in the first half of the year.
Prices rose and about 150,000 people lost their jobs. In addition, food difficulties were being experienced in the 13 districts of the south due to dry weather, and in the east due to a cyclone. A WFP emergency operation has recently been jointly approved with FAO to provide food assistance until next March for 394,250 vulnerable people.
The situation in Angola gave cause for serious concern, the report said, with 1.9 million people needing food aid. Although malnutrition rates had improved, they remained high and most of the areas to which the population was returning following the end of the conflict, had no basic health services. Poor roads and landmines continued to hamper humanitarian assistance.
The latest WFP report warned that despite two new donor contributions, the cereal pipeline would break from March affecting two million people unless the organisation received US $90 million to keep operations afloat until June.
And in Mozambique, heavy rains in October hampered access to vulnerable groups.
FAO had also appealed for US $12.7 million to help the neediest farmers in the region with much-needed agricultural inputs.