Harare — More than 9,6 million people are food insecure in the Southern African region following droughts mostly in Malawi and Zimbabwe.
The situation is dire amid at least an 80 percent chance of an El Niño phenomenon until December 2018, which coincides with the lean season in the region.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Malawi now has an estimated 3,3 million people in crisis or emergency.
Zimbabwe has nearly 2,4 million people facing similar shortages.
There are also pockets of people facing emergency food insecurity in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho and Mozambique.
Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have been identified as the six highest-risk countries following fears of a recurrence of the El Niño.
It is generally associated with below-average rain in parts of Southern Africa.
UNOCHA warned rising levels of food insecurity were increasing protection risks, particularly for women and children.
The agency stated erratic rains were already affecting vulnerable families who are traveling long distances in search of alternative livelihoods.
"This exposes women, in particular, to a heightened risk of gender-based violence," a UN spokesperson said.
It is feared food insecurity could cause people to stop taking antiretroviral (ARV) therapy, as one of the side effects of the drugs is increased feelings of hunger.
The Southern Africa region includes Angola, Botswana, Comoros, Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.