Britain's leading aid charities will launch a joint appeal today to save the lives of more than 14 million people facing starvation in seven southern African countries.
Aid workers say they fear a humanitarian disaster as time runs out for the victims of drought, floods, political instability and poor harvests in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho and Angola.
Judith Lewis, the World Food Programme's (WFP) director for east and southern Africa, said the "window of opportunity to avert a major crisis was closing".
She told The Independent last night that despite new offers of aid from non-traditional donors – including $1m (£6.4m) from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – the WFP appeal launched at the beginning of the month had only secured 22 percent of required resources. It is the first time that the Mormons have contributed to a WFP appeal.
The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), which unites 13 leading British aid agencies such as the British Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children and Christian Aid to co-ordinate and maximise income from the British public at times of major disasters overseas, is to spearhead the campaign to supply emergency provisions and agricultural assistance to those countries in desperate need.
Brendan Gormley, chief executive of the DEC, said: "We are seeking to fund a major aid operation in a bid to avert a catastrophic famine in the region over the coming months. The appeal will help fund health programmes, distribution of seeds and tools to subsistence farmers, and food aid for the most vulnerable.
"There is still time to prevent the worst case scenario of death on a massive scale."
The operation, which has the backing of Tony Blair will work in conjunction with similar appeals in the United States and other countries.
Mr Blair said yesterday: "I am very concerned by the prospect of serious food shortages in southern Africa. That is why the Government has committed nearly £60m in aid this year to alleviate them.
"I welcome the fact that the Disasters Emergency Committee is pooling the resources of 13 of the UK's development and aid organisations ... It is a tribute to the determination of the NGO [non-governmental organisation] sector in the country to work together to help tackle this very grave situation."
Ms Lewis said she was hopeful of a "major contribution" from the EU, following talks in Brussels as part of an intensive lobbying effort.
The scale of the problem has been made worse by the impact of a long drought – and floods in some parts – along with the ravages of Aids on the rural workforce. James Morris, director of the WFP, warned that people were "walking a thin tightrope between life and death".
Zimbabwe is one of the worst hit. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, put the blame on President Robert Mugabe. "The principal cause is not the drought but the policies of Mugabe's regime," he said.