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WFP: Poverty, Illness, Hunger Plague Southern Africa

The U.N. food agency says it is facing a massive funding shortfall for its feeding programs in seven southern African countries. The World Food Program (WFP) says the shortfall is affecting more than 4 million people in the region, where hunger has become a chronic and complex problem.

The U.N. food agency says a $60 million funding shortfall has forced it to cut the number of people being fed through various programs across the region.

Seven nations in all are affected: Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Patricia Lucas is the World Food Program's Public Information Officer in Johannesburg, South Africa. She says the lack of contributions reflects the fact that hunger in southern Africa is not a high profile emergency such as Darfur, Sudan, but rather a low level and complex situation with long-term implications.

"The real crisis in the region and in the seven countries where we're working here is HIV-AIDS combined with really grinding poverty," she said.

The WFP says southern Africa's high prevalence of AIDS, among the highest in the world, has directly impacted food security. The agency says more than 6 million people in the region are believed to be infected with the AIDS virus. And health experts estimate that southern Africa has already lost 7 million to 8 million farmers to HIV and AIDS.

In addition to the pandemic, Lucas says many people in remote areas in southern Africa are unemployed and impoverished as a result of successive droughts, even though this year's harvest has been particularly good overall.

"Many of them sold everything they had over the last few years just to stay alive because of the poor harvest of the previous four years," she added. "We have had a very bad rain shortfall over the region over the last few years. That has changed in the most recent harvest year and that explains the good harvest. But that does not mean that people with HIV and AIDS and tuberculosis necessarily have access to that food. They have not been able to farm, they have not been able to go to work. And many of the people we are working with are the orphans of people who have died of AIDS and tuberculosis."

The U.N. food agency warns many people in southern Africa will need humanitarian assistance well into 2007, when the next harvest comes. And whether or not the agency is able to close its funding gap, tens of thousands of people in southern Africa will continue to battle illness and poverty, a combination that has made it impossible for them to feed themselves.