Up to 40 per cent of Malawi's population - 6.5 million people - may need emergency food aid in the coming months in what is set to become the largest ever emergency food relief operation in the African nation's history, the World Food Programme said this week.

As many as 18 million people across southern Africa will require emergency assistance thanks to drought caused by El Nino with Malawi one of the worst affected nations. The drought is a key cause - along with last year's severe flooding and prolonged dry spells which have devastated this year's harvest - of the food security crisis in the country.

Speaking following a three day visit to the country, Ertharin Cousin, the WFP's executive director, described the situation as "dire" and said the world needs to act now "before it’s too late”.

“I’ve talked with women in rural areas who told me they have enough food for just a few more weeks, after which they will have nothing. We must urgently assist the people of Malawi and those affected by the drought in neighbouring countries, before food insecurity spirals into hunger and starvation.”

The situation in Malawi is exacerbated by the fact that about 80 per cent of those affected by the food crisis are smallholder farmers who rely on what they grow to eat. There is also already a high level of stunted growth - caused primarily due to malnutrition - among children and the nation suffers from high rates of HIV/AIDS infections, meaning there are many orphans and households headed by children who already find food access challenging.

Other nations facing food insecurity in southern Africa include Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The World Food Programme plans to reach almost 12 million people with food aid between now and next March and will require $US217 million meet the needs of food assistance in Malawi alone.

~ www.wfp.org