By Alex Whiting
ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More funds are urgently needed for a worsening hunger crisis in drought-hit southern Africa that is expected to peak early next year and already affects 39 million people, forcing some to eat seeds and pull children out of school, aid agencies said.
Poor harvests in what has been the region's worst drought in 35 years meant many families ran out of food in August - much earlier than the usual October, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.
The next harvest is not due until March/April, forcing some to eat vital seed stocks, sell possessions and eat fewer meals. The whole region has been hit, with Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Madagascar the worst-affected countries and 28 million people needing immediate help.
"This is a crucial period coming up - the height of the lean season. The numbers (needing aid) are still growing and the crisis has yet to reach its peak," said David Orr, World Food Programme (WFP) southern Africa spokesman.
WFP's operations in seven countries most in need of international support are 50 percent funded between now and April, with a shortfall of nearly $300 million.
"This may affect our ability to scale up our operations as planned in the lead-up to the peak of the lean season," Orr told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Johannesburg.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) appealed for aid in July and has received just 26 percent of the $2.9 billion it needs, the organization said earlier this month.
More funds earlier in the crisis could have averted the need for farmers to sell cattle to buy food, and given more of them access to drought-tolerant seeds and help to diversify their crops so they were less reliant on maize, Orr said.
Funds have been slow arriving partly because of demands on donors from other major crises including the Syrian war, and an initial reluctance by some governments in the region to declare it a crisis, said Francesco Del Re, senior strategic adviser to FAO's southern Africa El Nino response.
FAO is trying to reach farmers with seeds and tools before the planting season ends. It has been a rush, especially in Madagascar.
"It's really time critical, you can't miss (the planting season)," Del Re said by phone from Madagascar. "At this stage we are trying to stabilize the situation, and then see what we can do to make people better off."
Hunger levels in parts of southern Madagascar are at phase four of a five-point scale used by food agencies, in which five is famine. Hundreds of thousands of people are living on the brink, Orr said.
"It's extremely precarious and alarming and will probably continue to be so well into next year which is why we're so concerned to maintain the effort there," he said.
In Malawi, some 6.5 million people need aid - nearly 40 percent of the country's population - including 3.5 million children, according to the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.
Some 60 million people worldwide were affected by drought caused by the El Nino weather pattern, but southern Africa was the worst affected region.
El Nino is now over, and scientists say a weak La Nina weather pattern has arrived, which is expected to bring heavier than usual rains.
This could boost harvests and restore depleted water reserves, but also brings the risk of flooding.
(Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Ros Russell.; 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 http://news.trust.org)