An estimated 2.17 million Zimbabweans — perhaps a fourth of the country's population — are in need of food aid, the Red Cross said Thursday.
In a statement, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies pleaded for international funds for urgent food aid to Zimbabwe. U.N. organizations also have appealed for more donor funds.
"In some parts of the country, the food situation is as bad as many of our volunteers and staff have ever seen it," said Emma Kundishora, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society.
Erratic rain — too much in some areas and too little in others — has damaged crops of corn, the staple food across the southern African nation. The former regional breadbasket also has been hit by acute shortages of seed and fertilizer.
At least 4 million Zimbabweans are estimated to have fled the nation's economic meltdown in recent years to find work in neighboring countries and further afield, leaving the population at about 8 million, according to official estimates from the finance ministry.
The Red Cross expressed particular concern about the possible impact of existing and looming food shortages on people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"Hunger is an especially brutal experience for these people," Kundishora said, describing people interrupting AIDS medication because the drugs are too toxic without food.
"Once people do this, their situation deteriorates incredibly quickly," she said.
In December 2009, the Red Cross extended emergency food operation in Zimbabwe until October 2010, calling on donors for $33.2 million in extra funding. The agency faces a shortfall in funding of about $23.9 million, Thursday's statement said.
"Right now, the situation is already critical — more than 2 million people need direct humanitarian support," said Dr. Stephen Omollo, the IFRC representative in Zimbabwe. "And we know that this will get worse as the upcoming harvest already appears to have failed."
Farmers organizations forecast local corn harvests this year of some 500,000 tons, with annual consumption estimated at about 1.8 million tons.
Critics of longtime ruler President Robert Mugabe blame the often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms since 2000 for the economic crisis that disrupted the agriculture-based economy.
Mugabe signed a coalition deal with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who is now prime minister. But the unity government has been split by disputes over power-sharing since it was sworn in in February 2009.