The United Nations said on Tuesday it was procuring food assistance for 4.1 million Zimbabweans, a quarter of the population in a country where shortages are being exacerbated by runaway inflation and climate-induced drought.

Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of southern Africa, is experiencing its worst economic crisis in a decade, marked by soaring inflation and shortages of food, fuel, medicines and electricity.

Inflation has skyrocketed to over 490 per cent according to a UN estimate, the second highest rate in the world after Venezuela.

“We are very much concerned as the situation continues to deteriorate,” Eddie Rowe, World Food Program (WFP) country director, speaking from Harare, told a Geneva news briefing.

“We believe if we do not reach out and assist these people then the situation would blow up into a major crisis,” he said.

For a country that used to be the breadbasket of southern Africa, the situation is nothing short of tragic.– Bettina Luescher, World Food Program

The nearly 220,000 metric tonnes of food aid, to be procured on international markets, represents a doubling of the WFP’s current program in Zimbabwe.

The agency aims to purchase supplies from Tanzania, in the form of maize grain, as well as from Mexico, and pulses from Kenya and potentially the Black Sea area, Rowe said.

Zimbabwe has only had one year of normal rainfall in the last five and “markets are not functioning,” he said. “There are families that go to bed hungry without a meal a day,” Rowe added.

With poor rains expected before the harvest in April, the scale of hunger will worsen, the World Food Program’s executive director David Beasley said in a statement.

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government will scrap its plan to remove grain subsidies next year, a move it says will protect impoverished citizens from rising food prices, state media reported last week.

Rights groups say at least 17 people were killed and hundreds arrested in January, after security forces cracked down on protests against fuel price increases. Police have banned further protests.

“For a country that used to be the breadbasket of southern Africa, the situation is nothing short of tragic,” WFP spokesperson Bettina Luescher said.

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Politicians in Zimbabwe turned off the taps in Harare this week, escalating the city’s already intolerable water shortage — something local activist Linda Masarira-Kaingidza blames on the city government. 4:52