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Millions facing famine in Africa

Donor governments worldwide are being asked to respond quickly to avert famine  

ROME, Italy -- About 10 million people in four southern African countries are on the brink of starvation, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. World Food Programme and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization say about four million tons of food will need to be imported to Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland over the next year.

They expect the figure to rise when reports from Zambia and Mozambique are completed.

"Millions of people are on the brink of starvation and will face grave food shortages as early as June, which would continue up to the next main harvest in April 2003," a joint statement said.

"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 two agencies called on donor governments worldwide to respond quickly "to avoid widespread hunger from developing into a humanitarian disaster."

They said that nearly four million tonnes of food would have to be imported to meet the minimum food needs, with 1.2 million tonnes required immediately.

"The teams were struck by the scarcity of maize at harvest time, prompting the need for an immediate response," the agencies said.

"Even in a poor year, at least some maize is normally available for a few months or weeks in markets and homes.

Zimbabwe, which is experiencing its longest dry spell in 20 years, is facing a serious food crisis "and unless international food assistance is provided urgently, there will be a serious famine and loss of life in coming months," they said.

All of the countries affected in the region are experiencing a combination of problems including growing unemployment and lack of foreign exchange resources, the statement said.

"However, the rapid spread of HIV-Aids in southern Africa, where infection rates are the highest in the world, makes vulnerability to food shortages all the more deadly."

Analysts say the government-backed seizure of commercial farms in Zimbabwe since 2000, Malawi's decision to sell off its entire strategic maize reserves in 2001, and the devastation caused by a 28-year civil war in Angola, are also to blame.

The joint U.N. missions brought together leading agricultural and food experts and included observers from governments, donor agencies and non-governmental organisations.


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