JOHANNESBURG, 7 June 2002 -- With figures just released for Mozambique and Zambia, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) are renewing their warning of a severe food crisis affecting close to 13 million people in southern Africa.

Added to the results of joint FAO/WFP missions to Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, the figures indicate that mass starvation is threatening the region with the worst humanitarian disaster for a decade. But this time, huge HIV/AIDS infection rates are exacerbating problems for people who are already mired in chronic poverty.

The latest reports paint a particularly bleak picture in Zambia, where 2.3 million people will need food assistance before the next harvest in March 2003. It is estimated that 174,383 tonnes of food aid will be needed.

Along with neighbouring countries, Zambia has experienced a second year of drought, especially in the south, combined with lack of seed and fertilizer, cattle disease and inadequate access to markets and health services. This is making life especially difficult for poor households in Southern Province and parts of Central, Eastern and Western Province.

"All the classic signs of acute social stress are evident in Zambia," the report states. "People are turning to desperate measures including eating potentially poisonous wild foods, stealing crops and prostitution to get enough for their families to eat."

According to the joint assessment report for Mozambique, severe dry weather in some central and southern provinces have placed 355,000 people in immediate need of food aid, rising to 515,000 after September, when the meager harvest is consumed. With 70 per cent of the country's population living in severe poverty, many people are still reeling from the dramatic floods of 2000 and 2001. Ironically, hard hit areas of Mozambique cannot benefit from increased maize production in some northern and central provinces because of high internal transport costs. Furthermore, shortages in neighbouring countries have pushed food prices beyond the reach of a significant number of the rural poor. The report estimates that 120,000 tonnes of maize will need to be imported - of which 50,000 tonnes will be food aid.

Across all six countries, the FAO/WFP missions assessed the outcome of the 2001/02 main maize harvest, the region's staple food, plus other food crops. They also forecast the 2002/03 winter crop production in order to determine each country's food import requirements, including food aid needs, for the next 12 months. It is estimated that a total of nearly four million tonnes of food must be imported to meet the minimum food needs of the six countries' populations.

Numbers of people requiring assistance are expected to increase as remaining food stocks are consumed. For example, in Zimbabwe, the number of people already needing food aid from now until August is 5.2 million, rising to over 6 million early next year. The population in need in Malawi now stands at 545,000 rising to 3.2 million by the end of the year. The figure of those people needing food aid rises to 2.3 million in Zambia: to 515,000 in Mozambique; to 444,800 in Lesotho; and to 231,000 in Swaziland.

The two Rome-based UN agencies today reiterated the need for donor governments worldwide to respond quickly and generously with food aid donations to avoid widespread hunger from developing into a humanitarian disaster.