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Millions Of Zimbabweans Facing Hunger

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says up to five million people in Zimbabwe may be going hungry by the beginning of next year. The Red Cross is appealing for $26.6 million to provide emergency assistance to 260,000 of the most vulnerable people. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Red Cross headquarters in Geneva.

A recent United Nations assessment of the food situation in Zimbabwe says the country is facing the worst harvest on record and this year's winter crop may only produce about 40 percent of the needs. The report predicts more than five million people or 45 percent of Zimbabwe's population are likely to be short of food between January and March 2009.

Red Cross Operations Coordinator for Africa, John Roche, tells VOA, the organization is stepping up its humanitarian operation now to prepare for what will become a very critical situation later in the year.

"So, we are appealing for funds now to be able to put, to be able to secure pipelines for food, to put capacities on the ground and to start and be able to address that we will not reach a situation where, several months down the line we may see people starving, dying," he said. "This is really the beginning of a preventative operation."

A number of factors have contributed to this food crisis. Drought and inconsistent rainfall have resulted in lower agricultural production. The country is experiencing tremendous social-economic crises, including hyperinflation, 80 percent unemployment and a raging HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Roche says those receiving Red Cross assistance include HIV/AIDS victims, the chronically ill, people who are caring for the sick and orphans. He says the program is taking place in two stages.

"First, we are providing a nutritionally balanced - we are giving people the means that they can cover their daily calorie intake," said Roche. "At the second stage, of course, we are going to provide, we are looking at the livelihoods support where we will provide means-we are also looking at livestock replenishment."

"That is not the case now that we cover the gap where there is hunger, but also that we try to make these people a bit more self-reliant and self sufficient," he added.

The government of Robert Mugabe has restricted the movements of a number of non-governmental organizations, limiting their ability to provide aid to the needy. Roche says the all-volunteer Red Cross in Zimbabwe is community-based and has no restrictions on its movement.

He notes this preliminary emergency appeal is based on initial assessments of the situation. He says the appeal may be revised and possibly increased as the needs of vulnerable communities become clearer.