After eight years of a calamitous programme of farm seizures and repeated harvest failures, the UN has warned that as many as 5m people – estimated to be about half the remaining population – could face starvation by early next year.
The World Food Programme’s appeal comes amid protracted deadlock in power-sharing talks between President Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, whose party has accused the regime of "fiddling while Zimbabwe burns".
The stand-off that has paralysed many state operations began in March when Mr Tsvangirai inflicted a shock electoral defeat on the octogenarian strongman who has ruled since independence in 1980. As violence against his supporters escalated, he withdrew from a run-off, prompting the tortuous negotiations that are now stalled over the allocation of ministries.
"Millions of Zimbabweans have already run out of food or are surviving on just one meal a day and the crisis is going to get much worse in the coming months," Mustapha Darboe, the WFP’s regional chief, said in a statement.
The $140m would be on top of $175m the WFP’s Zimbabwe operations have already received this year from donors, principally the US. The agency is set to take charge of the biggest aid agency feeding programme in the country.
Richard Lee, WFP spokesman, said a combination of a 20 per cent drop in the maize harvest from an already low base, economic decline that has produced the world’s highest rate of inflation, and rising food prices had more than doubled the number of people the organisation had to feed.
Peter Lundberg, who runs the Red Cross programme in Zimbabwe, told the Financial Times the charity had secured about $27m for emergency rations but would probably need to seek a further $5m-$8m, mainly due to rising food prices globally.
Some aid agencies said the potential disaster could rival the Ethiopian famines that shocked the world in the 1980s. "People are collecting wild berries and roots, trying to find food desperately," said Mr Lundberg. "In parts of the south, there is nothing."
With rains expected in December, time is short to supply seeds and other farming inputs to avoid another wasted harvest.
The last crop yielded some 800,000 tonnes of food. Aid agencies are relying on the government’s grain importing monopoly being able to supply that amount again, leaving the relief organisations – many of whom were until recently banned – to fill a 400,000 gap in basic food needs.
Yet with its foreign reserves all but exhausted and neighbouring producers worried about the growing cost of feeding their own populations, several aid agency leaders told the FT there were fears as to whether the state could meet its share.
The government blames western sanctions against senior generals and members of Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party for the economic tailspin. The official inflation rate on Thursday reached 231m per cent – vastly below most independent economists’ estimates.
Fears of famine have been exacerbated by the political dimension. There are renewed press reports of people being required to produce Zanu-PF membership cards to receive state rations.
All parties to the unity government talks – including western powers who are dangling an enormous aid package should Mr Mugabe’s wings be clipped – have exhorted one another to reach a speedy conclusion on humanitarian grounds. None has yet been forthcoming.