A U.S.-sponsored famine alert system is warning of potential malnutrition in Zimbabwe because of the short supply of the staple food, corn meal. Meanwhile, early estimates of summer grain crops are gloomy. The monthly alert of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET), calls Zimbabwe's food situation an emergency.
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network says where food is available it has become too expensive for most of the population.
It says most rural people have run out of food they stored from last year's harvest and has identified areas in three provinces where it says nutrition levels have slumped.
Corn meal increased in price by 50 percent from December 22 to January 12. But little is available in Harare's supermarkets and in Zimbabwe's second-largest city, Bulawayo, many people say it has been missing from supermarkets for two weeks.
According to cereal merchants in South Africa, Zimbabwe's Grain Marketing Board is buying about 5000 tons of maize a week. This amounts to about a quarter of Zimbabwe's needs.
The government of President Robert Mugabe says Zimbabwe needs neither aid nor imports and does not allow humanitarian agencies such as the U.N. World Food Program to issue donor appeals.
The U.N. World Food Program has largely dismantled its operation in the country and is presently distributing its last food supplies to targeted groups such as children orphaned by the HIV pandemic and the elderly. Those supplies will dry up by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, independent agricultural analysts say that the maize crop was planted too late and the harvest will be light. Agriculture minister Joseph Made told VOA that maize continues to be planted and therefore an assessment of the expected harvest cannot be made yet.
The tobacco crop has failed this year. Even though it has slipped to less than a quarter of its size from 2000, tobacco was still Zimbabwe's top foreign currency earner last year. Regional agronomist Rusty Markham, who is employed by an international tobacco company, says this summer's tobacco yield will be lower than last year's record low of 6 million kilograms.
The central bank, Zimbabwe's electricity authority, and private tobacco companies financed thousands of new tobacco farmers this season, but analysts say few have adequate skills or equipment to raise sufficient crops to even cover their loans.
FEWSNET concluded its latest report by calling for the Zimbabwe government and the international donor community to find a formula to expand, what it describes as, the limited working space in which humanitarian agencies are currently forced to operate.