'Sluggish' response from donor nations contributes to starvation fears in Africa

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The World Food Programme warned yesterday of imminent mass starvation in several drought-struck southern African countries, including traumatised Zimbabwe. In all, 2.6 million people across the region were "already suffering from severe food shortages".

The UN agency appealed for an "urgent response" from donor nations, whose response to the growing crisis it described as "sluggish". The worst-hit countries are Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique, which two years ago suffered from calamitous floods.

In Zimbabwe – where opposition activists and supporters continue to be harassed, arrested and beaten following what has been condemned as President Robert Mugabe's "stolen" election victory – the WFP has only a third of the £42m it needs to help half a million people. The British Government donated at least £3.5m of that.

Food aid to Zimbabwe could run out by July. Drought has combined with the mass displacement of people and the state-sponsored invasion by the land-hungry poor of 4,000 commercial farms, to seriously disrupt production in a sector that used to be a surplus exporter for the country. Its maize crop is half of what it used to be.

Inflation of 117 per cent, and high food demand, which has pushed up informal market prices, has put much food beyond the reach of many millions of the poorest people.

Zimbabwe may have to import more than a million tons of maize and, according to the WFP, "the number of people needing food aid is set to rise. Skipping meals and eliminating the staple maize-meal from diets will likely continue."

Southern African countries face a "significant rise in food aid needs in the months ahead, which will compound critical food aid shortfalls for 2.6 million people already suffering from severe food shortages".

Natural disasters and the high price of maize have made hundreds of thousands of people reliant on food aid for survival, says the WFP. Poor donor response means it urgently needs £48m (to buy 145,866 tons of food) to stave off a break in food supplies.

Judith Lewis, the regional director for east and southern Africa, said: "Much more must swiftly be done to stave off the spread of hunger and malnutrition. Now is the time to act to prevent what is now a crisis from developing into a major disaster."

WFP believes a bad April-May harvest will bring low yield and great hardship, exacerbated by a "vicious dry spell, which has swept through the region and withered crops. Coming on the heels of a similarly poor 2000-01 crop, the effect of this year's poor harvest could be devastating".

* Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change released a report on the elections yesterday, claiming that ballot fraud could have cost its leader Morgan Tsvangirai up to 432,000 votes – a number greater than the margin of Mr Mugabe's victory.

The MDC said the massive disparities in official voting figures should nullify Mr Mugabe's declared victory.