"Without a massive infusion of money and a greatly expanded effort by the affected countries in collaboration with the international community, the future prospects for the 60 million people living in Southern Africa hold little hope," said a statement by the heads of agencies represented on the Inter-Agency Standing Committee.
They warned that unless prompt and decisive action was taken, an estimated 20 per cent of the adult population would die prematurely from HIV/AIDS alone. That number would definitely increase with the combined impact of food shortage, malnutrition and weakened health services.
Commenting on the statement, the head of the International Federation's Africa department, Bekele Geleta, said: "There is no doubt at all that there is huge gap between the reality of this tragedy and the perception. We need a major re-think in terms of the global response to the problems of southern Africa."
"This disaster is multi-faceted and requires a response that is equally diverse and that goes beyond the immediate issues of drought and food shortages to address pressing social issues around AIDS and poverty. This forthright statement from the IASC is very welcome and hopefully will motivate the world at large to tackle the issues head on," he added.
The IASC's hardhitting statement said: "As heads of the world's major humanitarian agencies, we call on the international community to respond appropriately to the human tragedy now unfolding in Southern Africa. While the world's attention is currently gripped by events in other regions, Africa is in crisis with thousands of people dying silently each day."
It said that while the exact numbers dying were difficult to gauge, "all indications point towards nothing short of a decimation of populations in their most productive years, and the prospect of economic collapse and insecurity in the foreseeable future ... It is the war against further, preventable deaths that must now be waged in Africa," it said, pointing out that women were now being hardest hit by the disease.
"Famine is but one symptom of a crisis that has been exacerbated by the scourge of AIDS and increasing poverty. The concomitant collapse of health and social services considerably increases the death toll amongst those suffering from common and easily treated diseases like diarrhoea, malaria, pneumonia and tuberculosis," the statement said.
It said the coping strategies communities used to survive were being rapidly eroded and the human capital necessary to recover from frequent drought and natural disasters was being destroyed.
"AIDS kills young adults, especially women, who are the backbone of their families and communities. It leaves behind orphans in large numbers with few prospects for a healthy future. Entire communities are collapsing under the strain of caring for the ill while maintaining productive livelihoods. Problems in governance, lack of appropriate agricultural policies and pervasiveness of poverty all contribute towards compounding the effects of the severe drought".
The agencies pledged to redouble their efforts and stress that the response must combine food assistance and new approaches to farming, along with prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. A comprehensive approach to the crisis must include access to food, water, health services including reproductive health, HIV testing, social support to orphans and the chronically ill.
The heads of agencies also call for a concerted effort by the affected governments, donor governments and humanitarian and development agencies to encourage leaders to adopt policies and strategies for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS that reach all segments of the population and to promote the human rights of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.
They also warn that "AIDS is changing the fundamental approach to emergency assistance and its effectiveness in Africa. Failure to adjust the international response will waste scarce resources and cost millions of lives. The continent will need many decades to recover."
"The struggle against preventable deaths requires resources. The heads of agencies remind the international community that good will alone will not save lives. Let us not turn our heads away and become tacit accomplices in an otherwise preventable tragedy."
The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) comprises both members (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN Development Programme, UN Population Fund, UN Children's Fund, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN World Food Program, UN World Health Organization) and standing invitees, (International Committee of the Red Cross, International Council of Voluntary Agencies, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, InterAction, International Organization for Migration, Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, Representative of the Secretary General for Internally Displaced Persons, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Bank).