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Fourteen million people in southern Africa face hunger due to prolonged drought, which has become more severe due to El Nino conditions, said the UN World Food Program (WFP) on Monday.
Nearly three million people will be affected in Malawi — roughly 16 percent of the country's population — while nearly two million are considered at risk on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar.
Another 1.5 million people, more than 10 percent of the population, are at risk of hunger in Zimbabwe.
"With little or no rain falling in many areas and the window for the planting of cereals closing fast or already closed in some countries, the outlook is alarming," said the UN agency, according to Reuters. "WFP is looking to scale up its lean season food and cash-based assistance programs in the worst-hit countries but faces critical funding challenges."
South Africa, the continent's largest economy and a key producer of maize, has been hit with its worst drought in decades. 2015 was the driest year since record keeping began in 1904. Poor maize yields may force the country to import half of what is needed this year.
Meanwhile, maize in Malawi is primarily produced by small-scale farmers who depend on rainfall to sustain their crops because they cannot afford expensive irrigations systems.
Food prices across southern Africa have risen due to lower yields and availability, according to WFP. The price of maize, for example, is 73 percent higher in Malawi than the three-year average for this time of year.
WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin just concluded a tour of drought-prone southern Zambia.
"I'm particularly concerned that smallholders won't be able to harvest enough crops to feed their own families through the year, let alone to sell what little they can in order to cover school fees and other household needs," she said.
Levels of stunting among children in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia are among the worst in the world, according to WFP.
While the frequency of El Niño can be quite irregular, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the phenomenon occurs every two to seven years on average, when sea-surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean become unusually warm.
One of the strongest El Niño formations on record is currently underway. El Niño has been linked to extreme weather anomalies around the world, including severe drought in Indonesia, torrential rains in California and parts of South America, and the near certainty that 2015 will globally go down as the hottest year on record.
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