More than 60 percent of Zimbabwe's 15 million people live in rural areas. / Photo: AP

The UN World Food Programme said that it was working with Zimbabwe's government and aid agencies to provide food to 2.7 million rural people in the country as the El Nino weather phenomenon contributes to a drought crisis in southern Africa.

Food shortages putting nearly 20 percent of Zimbabwe's population at risk of hunger have been caused by poor harvests in drought-ravaged areas where people rely on small-scale farming to eat.

El Nino is expected to compound that by causing below-average rainfall again this year, said Francesca Erdelmann, WFP country director for Zimbabwe, said on Wednesday.

El Nino is a natural and recurring weather phenomenon that warms parts of the Pacific, affecting weather patterns around the world. It has different impacts in different regions.

Food shortages

When rains fail or come late, it has a significant impact, Erdelmann told a news conference.

January to March is referred to as the lean season in Zimbabwe, when rural households run out of food while waiting for the next harvest.

More than 60 percent of Zimbabwe's 15 million people live in rural areas. Their life is increasingly affected by a cycle of drought and floods aggravated by climate crisis.

Dry spells are becoming longer and more severe. For decades, Zimbabwe’s rainy season reliably ran from October to March. It has become erratic in recent years, sometimes starting only in December and ending sooner.

Dwindling harvests

Once an exporter of food, Zimbabwe has relied heavily on assistance from donors to feed its people in recent years. Agricultural production also fell sharply after the seizures of white-owned farms under former President Robert Mugabe starting in 2000 but had begun to recover.

The United States Agency for International Development, the US government's foreign aid agency, has estimated through its Famine Early Warning Systems Network that 20 million people in southern Africa will need food relief between January and March. Many people in the areas of highest concern such as Zimbabwe, southern Malawi, parts of Mozambique and southern Madagascar will be unable to feed themselves into early 2025 due to El Nino, USAID said.

Erdelmann said WFP had received a donation of $11 million from USAID.

Zimbabwe's government says the country has grain reserves to last until October, but it has acknowledged that many people who failed to harvest enough grain and are too poor to buy food from markets are in dire need of assistance.

Staple food prices are spiking across the region, USAID said, further impacting people's ability to feed themselves.

Zimbabwe has already acknowledged feeling the effects of El Nino in other sectors after 100 elephants died in a drought-stricken wildlife park late last year.

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TRT Afrika and agencies