Southern African countries have launched an emergency appeal for $2.8bn (£2.1bn) to help feed nearly 40 million people hit by one of the worst regional droughts in 35 years.

According to the South African Development Community, which comprises 15 countries, 23 million people require urgent humanitarian assistance and a further 13 million are food insecure following the strongest El Niño event recorded.

Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe have already declared national drought emergencies, South Africa has a drought emergency in eight of its nine provinces, and Mozambique declared a 90-day “red alert” for some areas.

El Niño is over – but it leaves nearly 100 million people short of food
Read more
Food shortages are expected to peak between October, when supplies will run lowest, and March, when the next harvest is due, so the number of people in extreme need is expected to rise significantly if insufficient assistance is given.

The US has pledged $127m (£97m), lifting its contribution to the region to about $300m. Britain has delivered $250m to Africa since July 2015 as part of its El Niño response, and the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy last week announced pledges totalling $22m.

But the gap between funds needed and pledged is thought to have risen to more than $4bn. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, $6bn has been requested by the governments of the 60-odd countries affected by El Niño but less than $2bn has been pledged.

“Mobilising humanitarian assistance will be critical to save lives and reduce suffering. Our additional contribution will help meet growing needs by providing emergency food assistance, nutrition and health support, access to safe drinking water, and seeds ahead of the upcoming planting season to promote agricultural recovery,” said a USAid spokesman.

“It has been clear for months that this drought is having a devastating impact on the southern Africa region, and we know things could get even worse. People are struggling now. They have watched their crops wither and their animals starve to death. Even in the best-case scenario the next major harvest is not expected until early next year,” said Rebecca Sutton, Oxfam’s El Niño campaign manager.

“Given the scope of the disaster globally the shortfall of $4bn needed for this crisis is shocking. This disaster is too big for just a handful of donors who have given generously to be relied upon; others need to step up.”