“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,” said Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), who today concluded a three-day visit to the country.In a telephone briefing yesterday with reporters, Ms. Cousin said severe flooding and prolonged dry spells last year have devastated this year’s harvest. “We have an opportunity to prevent this drought becoming a severe crisis if we get out ahead of it and provide the food that is required,” she said. Ms. Cousin reiterated the message today, saying that the international community must urgently assist the people of Malawi and six other countries affected by El Niño – Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe – “before food insecurity spirals into hunger and starvation.” Across southern Africa, as many as 18 million people will require emergency assistance due to El Niño between now and March of next year, according to WFP. The UN agency is planning to reach nearly 12 million people with food aid. In Malawi, about 80 per cent of the affected people are smallholder farmers who rely on what they grow to eat. Given that the estimated number of people currently in need is two and a half times higher than last year, the WFP official reiterated the need for $217 million to bridge a funding gap to produce, transport and pre-position food stocks in the country. The situation is particularly dire given the already existing high level of stunting, a medical condition that results in low growth for age and is caused primarily due to malnutrition, among children. The country also suffers high rates of HIV/AIDS infections and related deaths that have left many orphans and child-headed households, and for whom food access is already challenging.