Southern Africa's severe drought leaves millions hungry

About 14 million people in Southern Africa are facing hunger because of last year's poor harvest, caused by the El Nino weather pattern, the World Food Programme says.

In a statement released on Monday, the WFP, which is the UN's food-assistance branch, gave warning that the number of people without enough food is likely to rise further in 2016, as the drought worsens throughout the region.

"Worst affected in the region by last year’s poor rains are Malawi (2.8 million people facing hunger), Madagascar (nearly 1.9 million people) and Zimbabwe (1.5 million) where last year's harvest was reduced by half compared to the previous year because of massive crop failure," the WFP statement said.

"In Lesotho, the government last month declared a drought emergency and some 650,000 people - one-third of the population - do not have enough food."

The WFP said that food prices across Southern Africa have risen sharply because of the reduced production and availability.

"I'm particularly concerned that smallholders won't be able to harvest enough crops to feed their own families through the year, let alone to sell what little they can in order to cover school fees and other household needs," said Ertharin Cousin, WFP executive director, after a visit to southern Zambia.

Al Jazeera weather presenter Richard Angwin says El Nino, which strictly refers to the surface warming of the eastern and central Pacific Basin, has had a knock-on effect across much of the world.

This naturally occurring phenomenon, which appears every two to seven years, was particularly strong in 2015.

"It is certainly the strongest since the last major El Nino of 1997-98, and it stands every chance of being the strongest since at least 1950," he said.

While this El Nino has brought drier conditions to Southern Africa and wetter ones to East Africa, Ethiopia has also been hit by its worst drought in 30 years.

The UN said this week that 400,000 Ethiopian children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition and more than 10 million people need food aid.

Save the Children, an international non-governmental organisation, says the drought in Ethiopia represents as big a potential threat to children's lives as the war in Syria.