At least 1. 7 million Zambians need food, and the situation is deteriorating rapidly, the U. N. food agency warned last week. "Villages are on the...

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — At least 1.7 million Zambians need food, and the situation is deteriorating rapidly, the U.N. food agency warned last week.

“Villages are on the brink of widespread starvation,” World Food Program Country Director David Stevenson said in a statement issued in neighboring South Africa. “There is no maize, wild foods are exhausted, and there’s very little food aid on the way for the next six months unless the international community steps in now with cash to stave off a humanitarian catastrophe.”

An estimated 12 million people in six southern African countries are expected to need food aid before the next harvest in February and March due to crop failure and the rising cost of grain. In Malawi alone, up to 5 million people — 40 percent of the population — are facing shortages.

Zambia had been one of the region’s success stories, recovering from a 2001-2 drought to produce agricultural surpluses in the past two years.

But another partial drought was exacerbated by the spread of HIV/AIDS, which is decimating rural work forces across southern Africa. About one in five of Zambia’s 11 million people are infected with the virus that causes AIDS, and life expectancy has dropped to just 37 years.

Water levels in Zambia’s Southern Province are at near record lows, WFP said Friday. More than 70 percent of bore holes and wells have dried up, and rivers have dropped to their lowest levels in nearly 12 years, according to district officials.

Maize prices have risen by up to 60 percent since last year, pushing the staple beyond the reach of the poorest, WFP said. In desperation, families have sold their livestock to buy food and most have nothing left to sell.

In a normal year, people could rely on wild fruits and roots for sustenance between harvests. But this year, most wild foods are already depleted, WFP said.

While the rainy season is approaching, most subsistence farmers can no longer afford the seed and fertilizer they need to plant for next year’s harvest.

Despite emergency appeals, WFP still faces a shortfall of $143 million against the region’s massive food needs until April 2006.

The agency has appealed for $32.8 million to feed up to 1.1 million Zambians. However, preliminary results of a revised vulnerability assessment indicate at least 1.7 million will now need help, it said.

“We have a limited amount of time to buy food in the region and get it to the hungriest before the harshest months of the lean season,” Stevenson said. “The time to act is now.”