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13 Million Threatened With Starvation in Southern Africa, UN Says - 2002-06-06

In southern Africa, the United Nations has said, nearly 13 million people are threatened with starvation in the next few months without urgent international food aid. Aid agencies and government officials are meeting in Johannesburg to discuss ways of easing food shortages in southern Africa.

The U.N. World Food Program said six countries are nearing what officials call "an enormous crisis," and need immediate international aid to avoid disaster.

The agency said the situation is worst in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. But Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho are also badly affected.

Without urgent help, WFP officials said, 12.8 million people risk starvation in the next few months.

Judith Lewis is the agency's regional director for east and southern Africa. "Ok, we're not at a famine stage yet, and this is what our goal is - to avert what could potentially be a famine. In three months, we are looking at a major, major need for food. And that's why it's important now to react; that's why it's important now to get vessels on the high seas, to get money to buy what food might be available in the region," she said.

Approximately 100 delegates from African and Western nations will spend two days in Johannesburg, discussing regional food and crop assessments and what the crisis might mean for southern Africa in the coming year.

Aid agencies will also seek to soothe donors' concerns about sending help to countries where corruption and political instability are seen as problems.

Two years of irregular rainfall throughout the region contributed to the food shortage. But, in several countries, government mismanagement and corruption have exacerbated the crisis.

In Malawi, for example, the government accidentally sold off the country's entire strategic grain reserve. Two separate investigations are under way to find out exactly what happened and why.

Meanwhile, at another international meeting taking place in Durban, Zimbabwean Finance Minister Simba Makoni acknowledged that his country's controversial land-reform program has compounded the food shortage. Mr. Makoni said the forced redistribution of farms is not the main reason for the crisis, but it has made the effects worse.