About 13 million people will face starvation in the area by the end of this year, according to the World Food Program, unless a million tons of emergency cereal are distributed in the region soon.
"Southern Africa is already facing an extremely severe crisis, which will only worsen in the coming months," said James Morris, the U.N. food aid agency's new director. "It is still possible for the international community to avert a catastrophe by responding rapidly to this appeal."
The countries affected are Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland, which all face shortages of food through a combination of poor rains, floods, economic decline and mismanagement by governments. The famine has been aggravated, Morris said, by the AIDS epidemic, which has killed many agricultural workers and left millions of orphans.
"We need to get started immediately," said Morris. It takes months to get food shipped and distributed and it must be done before the October rainy season isolates many rural areas.
"If people respond in the next few weeks we can save many millions of lives," Morris said at U.N. headquarters.
The World Food Program, which has been supplying emergency food to nearly 5 million people in the area over the past several months, says the number needing food will rise to 12.8 million by the end of this year, after the region's harvest. The organization says it now has only one fourth of the food it needs for the next three months.
With the new appeal, the WFP is committing to providing two-thirds of the region's cereal food aid, with the private sector expected to provide the rest.
"The magnitude of this crisis demands that everyone rallies together to save people's lives," said Morris. "No single organization can hope to deal with the crisis on its own."
By Bill Rigby