JOHANNESBURG, 29 October 2002 -- The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) are urging the international community to fund the purchase and distribution of critically-needed seeds and other agricultural inputs to avoid a worsening crisis in southern Africa next year.

"The planting season has already begun and the window of opportunity to move seeds, hand tools and fertilizers into farming areas in countries such as Malawi and Zambia is closing rapidly," said Deborah Saidy, WFP Deputy Emergency Coordinator for southern Africa. "If the international community doesn't act soon, that window will slam shut and consequently, the region will continue to suffer from lack of food in the coming year."

In September, an inter-agency fact-finding team, including representatives from WFP, OCHA, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, FAO and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), visited all six countries affected by the current crisis. The mission found that a quick response to the crisis, including the timely provision of seeds, would be necessary to avoid a massive deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the coming months.

"There is no doubt that we will have a full blown disaster on our hands if we don't act now," added Saidy.

Southern Africa is facing a long road to recovery from the crisis, which has been caused by a convergence of poor harvests, HIV/AIDS and economic collapse across the region.

However, a plentiful harvest from the next cropping season, ending in April and May 2003, would greatly ease the immediate food crisis and prevent a continuing cycle of hunger. But with the low levels of seeds, hand tools and fertilizers currently available to farmers across the region, the likelihood of that happening is decreasing as each day passes.

The latest food security assessments in the region show just how serious the situation is, with more than 70 percent of households having no cereal seed in Zambia and Malawi, while in Zimbabwe more than 94 percent of farmers were without seeds as of last month.

In Lesotho, teams found that almost 50 percent of households countrywide did not know how they would access cereal seed and 60 percent were worried about getting hold of legume seed. In Swaziland, 80 percent of households surveyed did not have seed for the coming season.

According to Anne M. Bauer, Director of FAO's Emergency Operations and Rehabilitation Division, the key agricultural inputs, particularly seed, are available in the region and would be bought locally.

"Because people are increasingly poor and prices are skyrocketing, timely access to these key supplies has become an insurmountable hurdle throughout southern Africa," said Bauer. "Immediate donations from the international community would allow aid agencies to get the crucial seeds, hand tools and fertilizers into the hands of millions of poor and hungry farmers in time for the next planting season."