BLANTYRE (Reuters) - Aid agencies are scrambling once again to avert starvation in Africa as increasingly serious food shortages, made worse by the AIDS pandemic, put millions at risk in the world's poorest continent.
Failing rains and the ravages of AIDS have made southern Africa the latest disaster zone, and governments and aid agencies estimate some 12 million people will need food handouts for six months until the next harvest starts in April 2006.
"We are looking at feeding up to 9.2 million of the most vulnerable people and we need around $400 million to do this," said Mike Huggins, regional spokesman for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
WFP's Antonella D'Aprile said this year people in Malawi had simply run out of food earlier than usual.
"Usually the hungry season only begins in December but we need food urgently now. People are already eating water lillies and they are risking attacks from crocodiles when they collect them. They are desperate," she told Reuters.
Huggins said the agency remained around $180 million short of this goal despite months of warnings.
"We are always worried when we reach such a late stage and are still so far short after months of appeals. It means many people may suffer the consequences," he said.
Poor rains in many parts of the region have left much of the staple maize crop stunted and withered on the stalk, not least in Zimbabwe, whose once flourishing farm sector is in crisis.
The AIDS pandemic is killing off much of the rural workforce and leaving many peasants too sick to till the land.
Farmers in densely populated Malawi have sown crops up steep hillsides, leading to erosion.
Some 5 million Malawians -- almost half the population of one of the world's poorest countries -- need food aid, and malnutrition levels are rising alarmingly.
Some Malawians have already died after eating inedible plants, according to rural residents.
Experts at a conference in nearby Zimbabwe warned that malnourished people were even more vulnerable to food-borne diseases that kill an estimated 700,000 Africans each year.
"A population that is malnourished or weakened due to poor nutrition or lack of adequate food (is) much more susceptible to food borne diseases," said Peter ben Embarek, a food safety scientist with the World Health Organisation.
The International Red Cross said on Wednesday it also urgently needed $27 million to help feed the needy in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
But there is concern about "donor fatigue" after the experience of Niger in West Africa, where children are still starving despite relief operations helped by media exposure of the crisis.
Africa's plight has been high on the global agenda since world leaders agreed in July to increase aid to the continent, plus deals to scrap crippling debt for some nations.
But aid agencies fear people in the developed world may be tired of TV pictures of poor and hungry Africans. Others disagree.
"If the cameras get rolling and the networks run the tapes, the public can be galvanised to respond and to put pressure on governments," said John Stremlau, head of Witwatersrand University's international relations department.
(Additional reporting by Stella Mapenzauswa in Harare)
Did you find this article insightful?