Zimbabwe's food security situation is set to worsen as it emerged this week that the country's meagre 2016 maize grain harvest would last three months.
The development comes as government's emergency food relief programme was dealt a major blow after the World Food Programme (WFP) said it faced a US$200 million funding deficit for the country.
This would make it doubly difficult for the organisation to meet the country's food and humanitarian needs until March 2017.
In its latest report released this week, WFP, Zimbabwe's major food aid partner, said: "Increased rains in March-April have marginally improved harvests in some districts, but overall crop situation remains bleak, and food insecurity is anticipated to spike as from July in all districts, as available stocks deplete... WFP anticipates that 2015-16 maize production won't cover more than three months of domestic consumption requirements (of annual 1,8 million tonnes)."
WFP also indicated that despite water availability and pasture conditions having improved following the late rains, cattle deaths were likely to continue.
With the country having already lost an estimated 25 000 cattle between October 2015 and March 2016, "half of all herds face poor body and health conditions", said WFP.
WFP had put in place a 2016/2017 El Nino Response Plan, which is valued at US$229 million, for the next 12 months; it commenced last month and is targeting 2,8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.
Currently, available resources are only adequate for the 2015/16 lean season assistance in 13 of 20 districts.
"With this contribution and available resources to date, WFP will be able to continue providing assistance for another six months in 13 of the 20 districts that were supported in March under the 2015/16 lean season assistance programme. Additional resources are urgently needed to allow WFP to extend the programme in the remaining seven districts beyond March and to reach its full planned coverage of 719 000 people in 20 districts in April.
"Over the next six months (April-September), WFP urgently requires US$28,6 million to be able to achieve its planned scale-up to 856 000 people by September, without which 407 700 people would be facing food insecurity in the worst affected districts," WFP said. This means more than 400 000 people who currently have no food face starvation.
An El Nino-induced drought aggravated Zimbabwe's already precarious food security situation after erratic rainfall and long dry spells contributed to large scale crop failure and livestock deaths across the country.
Although the present farming season's drought was the worst ever, Zimbabwe has been struggling to properly feed itself for the past 20 years.
WFP describes the southern African nation as a "low-income, food deficit country ranked at 156 out of 187 on the 2014 UNDP Human Development Index".
"Currently, 72 percent of the population live below the national poverty line (living on less than US$1,25 per day).
"Thirty percent of the rural poor are considered to be 'food poor', or 'extremely poor'.
"Food and nutrition security remain fragile and subject to natural and economic shocks in Zimbabwe, chronic under nutrition remains relatively high, despite some improvements. Dietary diversity is generally poor and consumption of protein is insufficient. Only 11 percent of Zimbabwean children 6-23 months receive a minimum acceptable diet. One-third of Zimbabwe's children are stunted or short for their age," WFP noted.
Zimbabwe, which was once the breadbasket of the southern African region, quickly turned into a basket case after the controversial 2000 land reform programme as yields declined spectacularly from as high as 1,5 tonnes per hectare to 0,480 tonnes per hectare.
Zambia has taken over as the region's breadbasket; Zambia's crop forecasting survey revealed that the country would record an increased maize harvest of 2,8 million tonnes, from 2,6 million tonnes last year.
With a carryover stock amounting to 667 524 tonnes as at May 1, 2016, Zambia has a total of 3,5 million tonnes of maize in stock.
Despite keeping the results of its crop assessment report largely secretive, indications are that Zimbabwe's maize production this season would be less than 60 percent of the five-year average of 800 000 tonnes.
Reduced availability of local maize, low carry-over stocks from last season, increasing grain prices and limited to no green harvests would mean deteriorating household food security.
Government had planned to import between 500 000 and 700 000 tonnes of maize between April and September, while additional quantities were reportedly being imported by the private sector from Mexico.
WFP estimates the prevalence of food insecurity in the rural population is going to fluctuate from 30 percent in April to 49 percent (approximately 4,4 million people) during the peak of the lean season from January to March 2017. It plans to gradually scale up its 2016/17 El Nino response accordingly, to reach an estimated 2,2 million people by January 2017.
With no other crop to harvest after the 2015/2016 failed season, a quarter of the rural population is already food insecure as food prices for products like maize grain have increased by about eight percent since the beginning of the year.
In February, President Robert Mugabe declared the 2015/2016 agricultural season a national disaster.
The declaration was aimed at mobilising resources to ease food shortages by availing aid to hunger-stricken districts in the country.
Other United Nations agencies have also been providing humanitarian assistance to many vulnerable people, especially in the southern provinces of the country that have been hardest hit by the drought since last year.
WFP's lean season assistance includes supplementary rations of super cereal, a nutritional maize and soya blend for households with children between the ages of six months and five years.