The United Nations has launched an appeal to assist Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe in responding to an ongoing humanitarian crisis caused by heavy seasonal rains that came early with little relief in sight. VOA's Delia Robertson reports from our southern Africa bureau in Johannesburg.

The U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs says that regional meteorological agencies have warned that the heavy rains in the region are likely to continue until the end of April.

In addition, although the severe cyclone season usually begins after February 20, already two more than the seasonal average of nine tropical storms or cyclones have made landfall in Mozambique.

U.N. aid agency regional director Kelly David says funding is being sought to prepare for what is expected to be a humanitarian crisis.

"To not only respond to the current needs, and that is what is unusual about this appeal, but also to be prepared for a further deterioration of the situation," David said. "So that means putting relief supplies in areas that we know are likely to become flooded and may be cut off from access because of the roads or the bridges being damaged."

The U.N. official notes that disaster preparedness and management has improved in the region, especially in Mozambique, and that consequently it is now possible to pre-position relief supplies for looming crises.

She adds that the appeal is seeking to address urgent needs and also looks ahead to recovery.

"The greatest needs that the appeal is seeking to address are food and nutrition needs," she said. "Water, sanitation and health remain a critical concern given the increased disease risk. Already in Malawi we are seeing 700 cholera cases associated with the floods. There is also a need for shelter for the displaced - at the moment there are more than a 120-thousand people displaced in all four countries but the bulk of those being in Mozambique, and then of course for recovery needs because there has been damage to infrastructure and when all is said and done and the flooding season in over in April there will be a need to rebuild."

With waters rising in the Zambezi river, Zimbabwean authorities are expected to open one floodgate at the Kariba dam, upstream of the Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique. This may mean that water will also have to be released from the Cahora Bassa. There is concern that, if not carefully managed, this may lead to further flooding in the Zambezi flood plain.

Mozambique President Armando Guebuza said last Friday this will only be done if necessary and said that southern African countries are working toward regional management of water resources as well as regionally coordinated crisis response.