By Tom Clark
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Around 1.5 million Zimbabweans are predicted to go hungry this year after a dramatic fall in maize production, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday.
Some 16 percent of the population are expected to be 'food insecure' at the peak of the 2015-16 lean season, the period following harvest when food stocks run especially low - a 164 percent increase on the previous year, the WFP said.
Zimbabwe’s staple maize crop of 742,000 tonnes is down 53 percent from 2014-15, according to data from the South African Development Community.
The problems in Zimbabwe are being felt across the region known as the ‘maize belt’, making an estimated 27 million people 'food insecure' in southern Africa due to droughts, inadequate farming methods and political and economic instability.
"The situation in Zimbabwe is more extreme than most countries in the region, but it is not unique", WFP spokesman David Orr told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Zimbabwe is particularly bad because it was hit very hard by the drought, which was severe this year."
Less than a quarter of Zimbabwean children between the ages of 6 and 23 months receive the recommended minimum acceptable diet for adequate nutrition, and 56 percent of all children between the ages of 6 and 59 months suffer from anemia, the WFP said.
Some analysts have expressed doubts about official figures due to the politics surrounding the issue, and say the number of people in Zimbabwe who will be short of food is believed to be over 2 million.
Large quantities of maize will have to be imported because of the fall of about half in Zimbabwe's maize crop, which compares with a fall in output of 20 to 30 percent across the region, Orr said.
Zimbabwe's food output rose 82 percent in 2013/14 from the previous year, and the sharp fall this year shows how unstable agriculture is across southern Africa as a whole, the WFP said.
Orr said the WFP plans to provide food aid to Zimbabwe from September, but is desperately short of funds.
"We are looking at bringing food and cash assistance during the lean season, which begins earlier than usual this year," he said. "We’re not going to be able to reach all 1.5 million in need. Our aim is about half that number. We are nowhere near fully funded; in fact we are still desperately in need of funding."
Thousands of small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe fear they will go hungry this winter after abandoning traditional staples like maize, sorghum and groundnuts for tobacco, a cash crop known locally as "green gold", but which was also hit by the drought.
(This version of the story adds dropped words in paragraph 12)
(Reporting by Tom Clark, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)