Can Zimbabwe get any worse?

Petrol queues stretched more than two miles through Harare yesterday as President Robert Mugabe's government effectively admitted that Zimbabwe faced shortages of vital supplies including its staple food, maize.

Frustrated motorists lined up for dwindling fuel supplies after weeks in which hundreds of thousands of households have been without running water and neighbourhoods have been blacked out by power cuts.

Yesterday it was announced that 1,2-million tonnes of maize was being bought from abroad to bolster supplies.

But it was not clear how the government would pay for this as Zimbabwe has a dire shortage of the foreign currency needed to import goods.

The government is also short of the money to buy the imported chemicals needed to treat water, as well as numerous other necessities.

"So many things are going wrong at the same time that people are getting into a panic," said a Harare factory worker, who did not want to be named.

"No fuel, no food to eat. Next we won't have enough air to breathe," she said. "We all know the Mugabe government held things together until the elections and now they are just letting things collapse."

Mike Davies, the chairperson of the Harare Ratepayers' Association, agreed. "The city is crumbling," he said. "Water and power cuts are widespread. The people who have run the city for 25 years have failed us."

The food and fuel shortages are even worse in the southern city of Bulawayo, according to residents.

Zimbabwe's agriculture-based economy used to produce enough food to feed the population. Plenty of high-grade tobacco once earned enough foreign exchange for the country's import needs.

But Mugabe has now acknowledged that the chaos stemming from his seizures of white-owned farms has left less than half the country's farmland under cultivation.

A season of marginal rains has brought a devastating crop failure. Aid agencies say about 4 million people -- a third of the population -- will need food aid this year.

"We have put in place a package where we are going to have over 1,2-million tonnes coming into the country over the next few months," said Samuel Muvuti, the chief executive of the state grain marketing board.

The announcement contradicts the government's earlier claims of a bumper harvest.

The tobacco crop is 70% smaller than it was in 2000 when the government's "fast-track" seizures of 5 000 farms began. The quality of the tobacco is reported to have declined, and international buyers are offering lower prices.

The critical shortage of hard cash was evident at the state's weekly auction of foreign currency, where only US$11-million was available -- when fuel importers alone needed $230-million.

Anthony Hawkins, a professor at the University of Zimbabwe business school, told the Guardian he was surprised by the speed at which things had fallen apart after last month's parliamentary elections, in which Mugabe's Zanu-PF party retained power.

"The shortages are a result of the government's lack of foreign exchange," he said. "It's amazing how quickly this collapse occurred. They managed to patch things up until the elections, but the day after voting the shortages appeared.

"It is obviously very serious. I don't see any easy way out."

International economists say the Mugabe government has exacerbated its economic problems by keeping the Zimbabwean dollar artificially high. Yesterday the exchange rate put the Zimbabwean currency at 6 114 to one US dollar. But on the thriving black market the rate was nearly three times higher, at 17 000 to one.

Economists say the unrealistic exchange rate hurts exporters such as gold mines and manufacturing.

But despite the dire shortage of foreign exchange, the government struck a deal this month to buy Chinese jet fighters.