The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) said on Thursday it was planning a massive relief food operation for more than half a million mainly rural Zimbabweans faced with starvation.
The announcement followed a request for help from President Robert Mugabe's government, a statement from the organisation said."WFP plans to start operations in November, with food aid arriving in December," the statement said.
The organisation's regional director for eastern and southern Africa, Judith Lewis, said many people in Zimbabwe were surviving on one meal a day or going entire days without food.
"What we're seeing right now is a developing complex emergency, a variety of serious problems which when added up, gravely threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of people," the statement quoted Lewis as saying.
Aid agencies have blamed the severe food shortages on a combination of drought and lower productivity after the often violent invasions of white-owned farms by militants in support of Mugabe's drive to redistribute farmland to landless blacks.
The WFP said daily survival would be a greater challenge in the months leading up to the next harvest in April/May 2002 as food supplies become tighter.
Harare economists said the situation would be made more difficult because of Zimbabwe's acute foreign currency shortage after three years of recession.
GOVERNMENT APPEALS TO DONORS
On Thursday Zimbabwe Finance Minister Simba Makoni said the government -- which has been isolated by key donors in the past two years partly because of the controversial land programme -- had sent out pleas to the international community for humanitarian assistance.
"Our expectation is that a combination of a re-allocation of our limited (foreign) currency and generous support from our friends will enable us to import enough food to save Zimbabwean lives," Makoni said.
Makoni added that it was important for assistance to arrive quickly before Zimbabwe's stocks were exhausted.
A recent survey by the Commercial Farmers Union, which represents 4,500 mainly white farmers, said that nearly a third of the country's 12.6 million people had applied for food aid.
Industry officials say Zimbabwe needs to import at least 600,000 tonnes of maize to meet domestic demand. The government has acknowledged a need to import 100,000 tonnes.
Farmers say Mugabe has failed to honour his September endorsement of a Nigerian-brokered deal under which his government agreed to end the farm invasions in return for pledges of financial help from former colonial power Britain.
Mugabe denies responsibility for Zimbabwe's worst economic crisis since he assumed power in 1980, blaming the turmoil on sabotage by his opponents in retaliation for the land programme.