By Peter Apps
LONDON, June 22 (Reuters) - Most of Africa has seen better rains and better harvests than in recent years, aid workers say, but they fear a looming crisis in Somalia while drought and HIV are slashing crop output in parts of southern Africa.
Last year saw a serious drought in East Africa, while 2005 saw a food crisis in Niger that grabbed worldwide headlines. Experts say 2007 looks easier but four countries -- Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho and Somalia -- are cause for concern.
At the same time, aid agencies are trying to address underlying chronic long-term malnutrition problems and agricultural failure and help those who have still not recovered from previous years.
"Because of the lull in east and west Africa, aid agencies are trying to address the underlying problems," United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) spokesman Peter Smerden said from Nairobi.
"In east Africa, what you have is pastoralists and herders who lost all their livestock in 2006 and have not yet recovered. They still need aid."
But while rains look good in the areas hit by last year's drought in the east and while West Africa's Sahel region has enjoyed two years of good harvests, parts of southern Africa have had their worst growing season in decades.
Some frequent hunger blackspots such as Malawi and Zambia have enjoyed bumper crops -- even exporting to regional breadbasket South Africa -- but the mountain kingdoms of Lesotho and Swaziland face a tough year.
Swaziland has recorded its worst harvest ever and the United Nations says 400,000 people there will need some 40,000 tonnes of food. On top of drought, the country has the world's highest HIV infection rate of almost 43 percent.
National cereal production in Lesotho is estimated at just 72,000 tonnes against the national requirement of 360,000.
Twenty percent less land was planted with cereals as agricultural workers died from AIDS.
VIOLENCE AND CHAOS
HIV and drought have hit Zimbabwe, where economic collapse and hyper-inflation make it hard for families to get by. The state newspaper says maize output this year was only 500,000 tonnes against 1.8 million the previous year.
Aid agencies were already sceptical about the previous year's 1.8 million figure, saying a shortage of seed, fertiliser and other essentials hit the crop. Zimbabwe has suffered serious food shortages since 2001, and while the government blames drought, critics blame the seizure of white-owned farms.
Aid groups repeatedly have clashed with President Robert Mugabe's government and say it is too soon to say how much access they will be allowed.
Aid agencies in southern Africa normally buy large quantities of food aid from South Africa, but a lower harvest than normal has pushed up prices.
Some aid workers worry about access to Somalia, where the government is seen as reluctant to allow food shipments to insurgent areas. Even without that, delivering aid in one of the world's most lawless countries is challenging.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled fighting in the capital Mogadishu, although some have since returned. Rains in parts of the country have failed.
"There are forecasts that make quite grim reading," WFP's Smerden said. "There may be a crop failure in central and southern Somalia."
WFP has lost several sea cargoes into Somalia to increasingly sophisticated pirate attacks, and warns that more could make shipments impossible.
Security problems also hamper delivery for the world's largest humanitarian operation in Darfur, where around 13,000 aid workers are trying to help around 4 million people affected by conflict.
Aid agency Oxfam shut down operations this month in Darfur's largest camp after a string of incidents, although the Red Cross took on much of their work.
"Because most people are displaced anyway, they are not growing a lot of food so it is a matter of keeping the supply lines open," Smerden said. "Every month there are pockets we can't reach... but we are reaching most people."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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