Over nine million people in Southern Africa could face severe hunger following a harsh drought that hit the entire sub-continent in the 2018-19 cropping season, according to the United Nations.
The UN World Food Programme in its latest update said about 9,2 million in southern Africa were 'acutely food insecure,' and that the number could rise to more than 12 million in the lean period between now and March 2020.
The UN agency plans to assist approximately 5,4 million people with life-saving assistance and critical livelihood interventions in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia, Madagascar, and Malawi.
A SADC Regional Vulnerability Assessment and Analysis report also revealed that an estimated 41 million people could face hunger at the peak of the 2019/20 lean season due to the devastating impact of drought, flooding, cyclones, conflict and macroeconomic volatility in the region.
"The number of food insecure people across the SADC region exceeds the level of need during the 2016/17 El Nino crisis," the WFP said.
"Eastern and central parts of the region experienced the driest season in over 35 years, with widespread crop failure observed in Zimbabwe, southern Zambia, northern Namibia, southern Angola and southern Botswana.
"Poor crop performance due to variable and late rainfall affected significant portions of Lesotho, Eswatini, and southern Mozambique, while the impact of cyclones Idai and Kenneth caused damage and destruction to harvests in eastern Zimbabwe, southern Malawi, and central Mozambique."
In Zimbabwe, about 2,3 million people are at risk of experiencing severe food shortages, while Zambia has 1,7 million people, Mozambique 1,6 million, Angola 1,1 million and Malawi 1,1 million people.
The 2018-19 rainfall season was largely affected by the El Niño phenomenon, which is usually associated with droughts in the region.
The main October-to-April rainfall season saw a huge reduction of the summer harvest across the region which largely depends on rainfall and minimal irrigation.
A regional food security assessment report which was issued in July this year showed that southern Africa has a cereal deficit of more than 5,4 million tonnes this year after a drought ravaged the entire sub-continent last season.
Food security experts said the region produced about 37,5 million tonnes of cereals compared to 42.9 million tonnes in the 2017 -18 cropping season.
The report was based on the 11 Sadc member states that provided cereal balance sheets for the 2018/19 harvest year.
The region's top cereal producer - South Africa saw a reduction of its output by 19 percent from 18,7 million tonnes during 2017 -18 season to 15,1 million tonnes in the just ended season.
Zambia, which is fast emerging as one of the regional cereal producer, experienced a 14,7 percent decline in production from 2,6 million tonnes to 2,2 million tonnes over the same period.
The southern Africa region recorded the lowest rainfall in nearly four decades in the 2018-2019 cropping season, resulting in increased food insecurity and water shortages in all countries.
"Government and other international actors will provide additional assistance to affected populations," the WFP said in the latest update.
"In the absence of immediate emergency interventions, the number of acutely food insecure people in the region is projected to rise to 12,7 million people at the peak of the lean season from January-March 2020.
"Given the scale, duration, and complexity of the DRC crisis, an overview of the current WFP response in the country has been treated separately."
Zimbabwe has 800 000 tonnes in its reserves against a consumption of 1,8 million tonnes, forcing the country to import grain to fill up the gap.
The impact of the drought that swept across the SADC region last season has been felt across all sectors including agriculture, food and nutrition security, tourism, energy, health, water and sanitation and education.
A majority of small-scale farmers are struggling to produce enough food to feed their families owing to the drought that ravaged most parts of the region.
Dam levels have dropped to their worst levels in decades while pasture and water scarcity has decimated livestock and crops running millions of dollars. However, there is a glimmer of hope in the 2019/20 cropping season.
The latest regional rainfall forecast for the 2019/20 cropping season shows that most SADC countries are likely to receive normal to above normal rainfall bringing hope and cheer to farmers still reeling from a drought that ravaged most parts in the previous season.
Predictions issued by climate experts at the 23th Southern African Regional Climate Outlook Forum (SACORF-13) which was held in Angola recently indicate that the bulk of SADC is likely to receive normal to above-normal rainfall for most of the period October to December (OND) 2019.
However, in northern Mozambique, southern Tanzania, northern Malawi, northernmost Zambia, bulk of DRC, north-western half of Angola, northern Madagascar and Comoros normal to below-normal rains are expected.
The January to March (JFM) 2020 period is expected to have normal to above normal rainfall for most parts of the region, with the eastern half of Tanzania, eastern half of Botswana, westernmost parts of Namibia, bulk of South Africa, bulk of Mozambique, southern Malawi, eastern Lesotho, central Zambia, southernmost Madagascar, south-western most Angola, Eswatini and Zimbabwe expected to receive normal to below normal rainfall amounts.