Two United Nations agencies responsible for food security warned in a report issued on Tuesday that more than four million Zimbabweans - about one in three people in the Southern African country - will need food assistance by early 2008.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program said in a joint report that 2.1 million could face shortages in the next few months.

Following a joint survey, the FAO and WFP said the provinces of Matabeleland South, Matabeleland North and the Midlands could run out of food by July, and that over a million people in the cities cannot afford to buy food and may also need aid.

The agencies blamed drought, a ?crumbling? irrigation system and the country's deep economic crisis for the impending crisis. Crop planting, cultivation and harvesting was hampered by fertilizer, fuel and tractor shortages, they said, while the "uneconomic" prices paid to farmers for their grain discouraged domestic production.

Harare has bought 400,000 tonnes of maize from Malawi and is expected to import another 239,000 tonnes of wheat and other cereals, the report said. Another 61,000 tonnes could enter the country through private imports and in-kind remittances.

That leaves a gap of 352,000 tonnes to be closed through food assistance.

World Food Program Southern African Spokesman Richard Lee told reporter Patience Rusere of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that talks are underway with the government about possible resumption of international food aid through WFP channels.

National Director Reverend Forbes Matonga of Christian Care, a WFP implementing partner in Zimbabwe, agreed with the report's findings and said he is optimistic the government will allow the resumption of international food distribution.

International food aid is a sensitive topic for the Harare government, which in the past has refused to make a formal request for assistance but has been willing to accept it when proffered. Food assistance is also highly sensitive because the government of President Robert Mugabe has been accused of politicizing food distribution and with elections on the horizon in March 2008 some see increased risk of such abuse.

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