11 July 2007The top United Nations humanitarian official today called for international assistance to help Lesotho which is facing its worst food crisis, with 400,000 people – or a fifth of the population of the small southern African nation – in need of emergency food aid. “The situation is critical for those already living on the edge, struggling to cope with the combined impact of successive crop failures, poverty and HIV/AIDS,” said Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes. “The international community must respond rapidly to assist the Government in averting a crisis.”Yesterday, Lesotho appealed for international support and declared a food security emergency, based on reports by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which noted that the country’s cereal production plummeted from 126,200 tons last year to 72,000 this year.The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) notes that the current crisis was triggered by the small landlocked country’s worst drought in the last three decades, which lead to the maize crop, a staple, being slashed by 40 per cent.According to authorities, there will be a 30,000 ton deficit in cereals. The harvest, commercial imports and existing food aid combined still fall short of the almost 330,000 tons needed to feed the population.Price surges have resulted from the drop in cereal production as well as reduced harvests in South Africa, Lesotho’s main regional supplier, with many households now unable to afford food. Those who will be hardest hit by price increases are people who rely on markets for food, including the landless and residents of urban areas.Those living with HIV and AIDS stand to suffer the most from food shortages, as a healthy diet is essential to benefit from life-saving antiretroviral medicines. According to the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), roughly 270,000 people – or 14 per cent of Lesotho’s 1.9 million people – suffer from the pandemic.Lesotho is not the only country in the region facing food shortages in the coming months. Approximately five million people throughout southern Africa, including 400,000 people in Swaziland and as many as four million people in Zimbabwe – will be in need of the world’s help due to droughts and other factors.The UN and its partners are supporting impacted countries, and an international appeal for assistance for Swaziland will be issued shortly, according to OCHA.