President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF government has already labelled 2007 a 'Year of Drought', and Denford Chimbwanda, president of the Grain and Cereal Producers Association (GCPA), told IRIN that this year's harvest prospects were grim.
"This situation is worse than last year, even though the past season was also affected by drought. While some areas have done relatively well, the majority of the land that was put under cereals are write-offs," Chimbwanda said.
The landscape is a dire picture of dusty maize fields, shrivelled before the tasselling stage, and villagers with little option other than to let cattle graze among the dry stalks at a time when they were expecting to gather the harvest ahead of the winter months.
In the district of Goromonzi, about 60km southeast of the capital, Harare, in Mashonaland East Province, Juru village resident, Theresa Mapara, 47, a home-based caregiver who assists HIV/AIDS patients, said, "Most of the time at night I weep to realise that my efforts to make these patients' lives more bearable are being rendered useless because of lack of food."
Mapara, who visits each of her 10 patients three times a week, said "Of course, being in a rural area that is poverty-stricken and does not have adequate medical facilities, we have to contend with a perennial shortage of drugs, but when that is coupled with a severe scarcity of food, the nutritional situation of the patients suffers, and there is hardly much we can do to save their lives."
She and her husband, who is employed as a cross-border truck driver, have sufficient food reserves, but Mapara often dips into them to feed her critical patients when donor food is unavailable.
Forced to sell his last goat
One of her patients, a 30-year-old carpenter who declined to be identified, sold his last goat last week to buy food for his two children as well life-prolonging antiretroviral (ARV) drugs for himself, which cost about Z$250,000 (US$10 at the parallel market rate) per month.
Zimbabwe's official rate of inflation rate is now over 1,700 percent, although independent economists estimate that it has crossed the 2,000 percent threshold, which means the Z$500,000 (US$20) he realised from the sale of the goat has already been spent.
The carpenter bought a 50kg bag of maize for Z$110,000 (US$4.40), a 2 litre bottle of cooking oil for Z$60,000 (US$2.40) and a 2kg packet of sugar for Z$30,000 (US$1.2), with the remainder being used to purchase his medicine.
The family eats two meals a day, usually black tea and thick maizemeal porridge in the mornings, and vegetables in the evenings.
In the past, Mapara said, villagers needing food assistance would be helped by the Zunde Ramambo, a communal programme in which residents participate in growing crops on common land, whose custodian is the local chief, but because of the drought no food relief was expected from this traditional coping mechanism.
Food aid needed
A volunteer, affiliated to the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society in Goromonzi and speaking on condition of anonymity, said the donor community should provide immediate food aid to villagers in the region to ward off starvation.
"It is most likely that many people will die, not because of disease alone but [of] starvation as well, if donors and the government don't come in quickly," she told IRIN.
It is estimated that the country will produce about 600,000mt of cereals in the 2006-07 farming season, but the annual requirement is 1.8mt. Although the government has played down food shortages in the past, it recently invited the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation to assess the food security situation in Zimbabwe.
The invitation to the two international bodies coincided with a threat made at a government rally in Matabeleland by the information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, to cancel the licences of all nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), so as to sieve out those with political agendas.
Ndlovu told The Herald, a government newspaper, that the country was facing "a severe drought this year" and would welcome unconditional food aid. He also divulged that maize was already being imported.
The National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO), which represents more than 1,000 civil groups in Zimbabwe, said it had received no official warning from the government about the cancellation of NGO licences, but said the move would be ill-advised because there was a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.
Domboshawa village, about 30km from Harare, in Mashonaland East Province, and Musana District, about 80km from the capital in Mashonaland West Province, were areas that used to produce food even in times of drought, but crops have failed to survive the relentless lack of rain and villagers there are now calling for immediate assistance.
"We spent a lot of money preparing the fields and planting but our sweat has come to nought," Petra-Anna Chingwena and her husband, Peter, told IRIN in Domboshawa, where they planted 10 acres of maize. "We heeded the advice of weather experts to plant with the first rains that came in late November  but after two weeks of heavy showers it became dry, and there was nothing we could do to rescue the crop."
The Chingwenas are subsistence farmers who depend almost entirely on their land to sustain themselves and their five school-going children, but are now struggling to raise money to buy food and to pay school fees.
The husband earns a little extra income as a cattle herder on larger neighbouring farms, but it is not enough to provide for the family's needs. If the drought breaks in the coming season, the Chingwenas will find it hard to till the land because they have had to sell two of their four cattle and their only donkey to cover the medical costs of one of their children, who fell seriously ill.
Food-for work brigades
In Musana District, villagers said the political leadership in the area, a stronghold of the ruling party, had advised them to form 'food-for-work' brigades that would combat erosion and repair roads in return for food handouts.
"The idea is noble but our problem is that it might take too long, and people will die of hunger. We are not cry-babies who would always call for help when we are in need, but the situation this year is so bad, and if food aid takes a month or two without coming, a real disaster is looming," Kundiziva Motsi, 56, told IRIN.
He said the able-bodied were trekking to the nearby Shamva area to dig for gold illegally, but not everyone could make a living from such a strenuous and dangerous activity.
"In this area there are so many families whose parents have died, and young children have been left to look after their brothers and sisters," said Motsi. "Naturally, such households don't have the capacity to produce food, and you can imagine what the situation is like when there is drought, like now."