ROME, 29 May 2002 -- The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) warned today that at least 10 million people in four southern African countries are threatened by potential famine - and that figure is expected to rise when reports from two other countries are completed.

Reports published today, covering the results of recent joint missions to Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland said that millions of people are on the brink of starvation, and that they will face grave food shortages as early as June, which would continue up to the next main harvest, in April 2003.

The overall picture will become even bleaker when the report on Zambia and one on some parts of Mozambique are added to the assessment of an already critical humanitarian situation. 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.

Over the next year, nearly 4 million tonnes of food will need to be imported to meet the minimum food needs of the sub-region's population. Almost 10 million people in the famine-threatened countries need immediate emergency food assistance of some 1.2 million tonnes.

The joint UN missions - covering six countries - brought together leading agricultural and food vulnerability specialists. Their reports constitute the broadest, most objective and authoritative study of the crisis to date. More than in any recent year, governments, donors and aid agencies have been awaiting the critical results from these harvest-time missions in order to plan their response.

The FAO/WFP missions, including observers from governments, donor agencies and NGOs, assessed the outcome of the 2001/02 main maize harvest, the region's staple food, plus other food crops. They also forecast the upcoming 2002/03 winter crop production in order to determine each country's food import requirements, including food aid needs, for the next 12 months.

Given the gravity of the findings, the two Rome-based food agencies today called on donor governments worldwide to respond quickly and generously with food aid donations to avoid widespread hunger from developing into a humanitarian disaster. The teams were struck by the scarcity of maize at harvest time, prompting the need for an immediate response. Even in a poor year, at least some maize is normally available for a few months or weeks in markets and homes.

Zimbabwe is facing a serious food crisis, even at harvest time, and unless international food assistance is provided urgently and adequately, there will be a serious famine and loss of life in the coming months," according to the report.

The longest dry spell experienced in Zimbabwe in 20 years has made the food situation especially dire. This has been compounded by the sharp fall in maize produced by commercial farmers who normally produce one-third of the total cereals, but whose farming operations were disrupted by the ongoing land reform activities and widespread illegal invasions. The overall cereal deficit is a staggering 1.5 million tonnes, even taking into account anticipated commercial imports and pledged food aid. Some 6 million people in rural and urban areas are estimated to need emergency food aid.

Long dry spells combined with a depletion of national grain reserves in Malawi contributed to food shortages early this year, driving farmers to consume crops prematurely. With abnormally high malnutrition rates among small children and women and extremely high food prices, desperation set in and survival strategies such as skipping meals and eating often poisonous wild foods were widely reported. Goats and chickens were sold at throw-away prices to buy food.

Malawi's maize production, currently estimated at 1.5 million tonnes, hasfallen by 10percent below last year's poor harvest. According to the FAO/WFP report, although the cereal deficit is mitigated slightly by increased production of roots and tubers, 485,000 tonnes of commercial cereal imports will be required, of which 208,000 tonnes will be food aid. More than 3 million people are seriously affected by reduced food availability and purchasing power, and will require emergency food aid over the year ahead.

In Lesotho, a second year of severe weather including heavy rainfall, frost, hailstorms and tornadoes, contributed to another poor cereal harvest in 2002 -- 60 percent lower than in normal years. Production of beans and peas, extensively grown for home consumption but also as cash crops, was also extremely low and will considerably reduce people's protein intake. Most rural households own livestock, but rising theft within villages and across borders has taken its toll -- livestock provide a vital source of cash to buy food when agricultural production is low.

The Government of Lesotho declared a state of famine in April. Some 444,800 people require emergency food aid throughout the country, particularly in Qacha's Nek, Quthing and Mohale's Hoek. According to the report, "agriculture faces a catastrophic future; crop production is declining and could cease altogether over large tracts of Lesotho if steps are not taken to reverse soil erosion, degradation and the decline in soil fertility".

In Swaziland, a third year of erratic weather with dry spells affecting crops during their critical flowering stage, has reduced production particularly in the dry Middleveld, Lowveld and Lubombo Plateau. "The combination of poor production from 2000/01, a severe reduction in this year's agricultural production, a contraction in agricultural wage labor opportunities and rising prices have made a substantial percentage of the chronically poor and hungry households food insecure for a portion of the year," the report said. An estimated 144,000 people will need food aid.

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