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By Peter Apps
Machinga, Malawi - Zimbabwe will probably allow the United Nations to launch a food-aid operation to help alleviate the impact of a late-in-the-season drought across the nation, says the UN's special envoy for southern Africa.
About seven million southern Africans face food shortages arising from the drought that has struck populations already struggling with chronic poverty and the world's highest HIV rates, says James Morris, head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN's special envoy to the region.
Critics blame chaotic government-backed seizures of Zimbabwe's white-owned commercial farms by landless blacks for destroying a once-thriving agricultural sector and triggering widespread economic collapse.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe accused aid agencies in the past of working to further the political agenda of the opposition under the guise of food distribution.
Last year he said his country had more than enough food, forcing aid agencies to scale back distribution. But the WFP carried on feeding almost a million of the most vulnerable, including many children orphaned by Aids.
Zimbabwean officials say the country needs 1,2-million tons of maize, but many aid workers say they doubt the government has the foreign exchange to afford it.
Morris, who is due to meet Mugabe next week in Harare, says he expects the government to become more helpful, given that the drought has impacted on Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi as well as his country.
"My perception is that the government is working hard to ensure food is available," he said. "I think they'll want our help. We'll leave the politics to others but our priority is that people don't starve."
So far southern Africa has not witnessed famine deaths, but in some villages weather-hit crops harvested a few months ago have died and aid workers fear that malnutrition will take its toll on the young, elderly and people living with Aids.
Aid workers say the region will need more than 2-million tons of food - much of it maize bought from South Africa. Grain traders say the greatest demand will probably come from Zimbabwe, followed by Malawi, where officials may buy up to 500 000 tons of maize.
Some aid workers question whether Zimbabwe can buy so much. In the area around the WFP's Machinga distribution point, south of Blantyre, 20% of households depend on handouts.
WFP assessments say aid needs are likely to exceed 300 000 tons of food for Malawi alone, while for the wider region the WFP says it will probably need 600 000 to 700 000 tons between July this year and July next year, compared with 150 000 tons for the corresponding period of 2004-05.
Three-fifths of this is likely to be grain, and most of that South African mealies. - Reuters