UN cuts rations for a million Zimbabweans

Around a million poverty-stricken Zimbabweans face hunger after the UN World Food Programme (WFP) announced Tuesday it was cutting food rations due to a cash crunch.

"We'd been hoping to have scaled up our seasonal relief operations... in the coming months with distributions of food and, in some areas, cash," Tomson Phiri, WFP spokesman in Zimbabwe, said as the country enters the peak of the so-called hunger season.

But "we've had to cut rations for one million of our beneficiaries in recent months and there are likely to be deeper cuts as from next month," Phiri said in a statement.

At least 2.2 million people -- a quarter of Zimbabwe's rural population -- will need food aid until the next harvest in May, according to estimates by aid agencies and government departments.

Food prices have doubled since last year, forcing many more into hardship, according to the WFP.

The UN food agency needs $80 million to feed hungry Zimbabweans in the next six months.

So far it has just $20 million and is working at raising the remaining $60 million, WFP regional spokesman David Orr told AFP in Johannesburg.

"Our operational funding for the next six months is about $80 million and so far we are only a quarter funded," said Orr.

Some of the hardest hit areas are in the west, central and southern regions of the country, Phiri said.

WFP is "very concerned about the food security situation in rural areas right now," he added.

Last week, the cash-strapped government of President Robert Mugabe said it would import 150,000 tonnes of the staple corn from neighbouring countries to avert food shortages.

Food production has dwindled in Zimbabwe in recent years with the government blaming low yields on erratic weather patterns.

But critics say the shortages were caused by Mugabe's land reforms seizing land from white farmers for redistribution to landless blacks in what he said was "a correction of historical imbalances."