The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reports that more than 6 million people in the southern African countries of Angola, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Malawi are facing severe food shortages.
People in Southern Africa are in the midst of the so-called lean season, which starts at the end of January and lasts until the end of March. It is a period, just before the next harvest in April, when food stocks are at their lowest.
International Red Cross Federation spokeswoman Jessica Sallabank said millions of people across the region are going hungry because food is in such short supply.
“Signs of malnutrition, such as weakness, emaciation, muscle wasting, distended bellies in children - all these kinds of things have been reported," she said. "People for the most part seem to be surviving on maize-meal porridge and wild berries. They never know from day to day, though, if they will get any food.”
Sallabank noted that heavy rains, lack of clean water and bad sanitation are putting people at risk of cholera, diarrhea and malaria.
Southern Africa is prone to recurring cycles of severe drought and flooding.
The Red Cross reports nearly 2 million people in Malawi are affected by food shortages, and many children are seen begging for food. In Angola, it says more than one third of the 1.8-million people at risk are children.
Southern Africa is the most heavily HIV affected region in the world. Figures from 2009 show 34 percent of people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, reside in 10 Southern African countries.
Sallabank said people with HIV have a weak immune system and the food crisis is just adding to their misery.
“Very often if they are taking anti-retroviral treatments are unable to keep the food down because it makes them nauseous. So, even without a food crisis, these people are already very weak and malnourished," said Sallabank. "Because people are so hungry and times are so difficult, we are hearing there has been an increase in young girls and women, who are often in single-parent households, who are going into prostitution. And we are hearing stories of trading food for sex and all those kinds of things, which obviously can contribute to the HIV problem.”
The Red Cross says once this phase of emergency assistance is over, the agency says it is planning to help people become more resilient so they can better survive these recurrent cycles of drought and flood.
The Red Cross says it will provide seeds, tools and fertilizer to help people plant their next crop. But as part of its long-term planning, it says it aims to promote the sustainable use of land and water resources by developing renewable-energy technologies, improving irrigation systems and introducing drought-tolerant crops.