HARARE, Zimbabwe — About half of Zimbabwe’s population urgently needs food and water after the country’s worst drought in four decades, the U.N. humanitarian agency said Thursday as it launched an appeal for $430 million to help those most in need.

About 7.6 million of the country’s 15 million people need “lifesaving and life-sustaining” humanitarian assistance, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. But the agency is asking donors for the money to help the 3.1 million people in the most severely affected districts for the coming year, said Edward Matthew Kallon, U.N. resident humanitarian coordinator.

A drought induced by the El Nino weather phenomenon is sweeping across much of southern Africa and has left both people and animals in desperate need of food and water. Zimbabwe, an agriculture reliant nation and one time exporter of food, is among the hardest hit by the drought.

Harvests for the staple corn for the 2023-24 season are estimated at about 700,000 tons, which is 70% down from last season. Zimbabwe requires 2.2 million tons annually to meet demand for humans and livestock, according to government crop assessment figures.

The U.N. appeal said that help will range from food assistance to cash transfers and construction of solar-powered boreholes that would provide drinking water for people and starving livestock such as cattle that are a key source of both food and labor.

El Nino, a naturally occurring climatic phenomenon that warms parts of the Pacific Ocean every two to seven years, has varied effects on the world’s weather. In southern Africa, it typically causes below-average rainfall, but this year has seen the worst drought in decades.

In southern Africa it has resulted in some of the hottest days in decades in some areas and floods in others, destroying livelihoods in a region where many people rely on farming to survive.

More than 60% of Zimbabwe’s population live in rural areas, growing the food they eat, and sometimes small surpluses that they sell meet expenses such as school fees. With relatively little participation in the cash economy, many of those won’t be able to buy food even when it’s available in markets.

“Immediate action is required to avert loss of life and livelihoods over the coming months,” read part of the 45-page appeal document.

Children under the age 5 and pregnant and breastfeeding women are more vulnerable, while the risk of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse are heightening as a result of the drought, according to the appeal document.

In patriarchal Zimbabwe, children, particularly girls, are often tasked with trekking long distances to search for water, putting their safety at risk. Close to 2 million children, both boys and girls, could be forced to drop out of school due to the impact of the drought, the U.N agency said.

The drought also could exacerbate a cholera outbreak by leading to unsafe hygiene, such as lack of hand washing and and drinking from polluted wells.

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