Up to five million people could go hungry in Zimbabwe next year through a steady drop in food production coupled with the world’s highest rate of inflation, the UN warned today.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Programme said in a joint report that an estimated two million face hunger between next month and September.
That figure is projected to rise to 3.8 million people later in the year and to about 5.1 million between January and March 2009.
Zimbabwe is predicted to produce 575,000 tons of its main seasonal crop of maize, a drop of 28% compared to last year.
The warning came as South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki, heavily criticised for his softly-softly approach to Zimbabwe’s problems, paid a surprise visit.
A spokesman said the trip was part of his efforts to mediate between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, rivals in a presidential run-off election a week on Friday.
Mr Mbeki has said his priority was to help Zimbabwe find answers through dialogue and negotiation rather than imposing a solution from abroad.
However, other African leaders have said quiet diplomacy is failing. Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga has urged world leaders to pressure Mugabe to step down, and calling the run-off a “complete sham”.
Meanwhile a UN official on a regular visit to Zimbabwe has been expelled by the government.
The official, who works in the office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, had been in Zimbabwe to meet UN staff and aid groups.
“Unfortunately it seems to fit in a pattern of the government taking a very uncooperative attitude” toward many international humanitarian staff, Ms Arbour said.
A recent government order for humanitarian groups to suspend work has put millions who depend on food aid at the mercy of the government’s own distribution system.
Mugabe, president since independence in 1980, has accused aid organisations of working with the opposition to topple him.