The Southern African Drought Monitoring Center has issued its second drought warning for the 2002-03 rainy season. The report by the center run by the southern Africa regional group (SADC), says most of the region will receive below normal rainfall. This is expected to worsen the food situation for countries such as Zimbabwe, where more than two thirds of the people already require food aid.

Halfway through the rainy season, the report paints a depressing picture for Southern African countries that were pinning their hopes on the current rainy season to bring an end to the acute food shortages they are experiencing.

For Zimbabwe, the second drought in as many seasons could not have come at a worse time. Deep into its worst economic crisis since independence 22 years ago, more than 7 million of its 11.6 million people will need food handouts until harvest time in March.

The report says that in some areas in Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe the rainfall shortage is at "critical" levels and requires immediate attention to develop strategies to address the problems associated with rainfall deficit.

The report appeals to governments of the countries concerned to start putting contingency plans in place. But according to an official at the Drought Monitoring Center, governments sometimes wait until harvest time to do anything. The official says if the governments would react to the warnings more quickly, people would not have to go through the level of suffering that is already beginning.

While the 2001-02 drought is to blame for the current food shortages, experts say that the Zimbabwe situation has been worsened by President Robert Mugabe's sometimes violent land reform program. The program evicted experienced white commercial farmers and gave their land to blacks, some of whom can not maintain production.

Mr. Mugabe has admitted that the land redistribution exercise is flawed. At his ruling ZANU PF party conference last December he complained that some of those who received land have not taken on their new responsibilities. This, experts say, has led to productive land lying unused, and a further reduction in output, particularly of the staple maize.

The government owned daily The Herald has said the government is in the process of identifying land not taken up so it can be allocated to people who will make use of it.

The Zimbabwean Minister of Agriculture, Joseph Made, has responded to the impending crisis by saying that the government will intensify the irrigated winter maize crop project. The project has come under criticism for being too expensive and, because of reduced sunlight in winter, the yields will be lower than the summer crop.

Aid agencies are already gearing themselves up to deal with the expected food shortfall. The World Food Program spokesman in Harare, Luis Clemens, says the agency has already carried out a preliminary assessment, which has revealed that some areas in Zimbabwe will harvest nothing at all. The agency will make a final assessment to determine the level of need after the harvest.