by Tichaona Chifamba HARARE, March 7 (Xinhua) --

A disaster is looming in Zimbabwe following a severe drought that has left most of the planted maize crop for the current season either moisture-stressed or being declared a write-off.

Drives along the country's major highways often show sorry sights of wilted maize as the El Nino induced drought which saw the country receiving low to below normal rainfall took its toll on the country's staple food.

The government is still to come up with its own crop assessment for the 2018/19 season, but projections from farmers put the yield as about half the 2017/18 yield. Emmanuel Zinyemba who farms in the Raffingora area in Mashonaland West Province told Xinhua Thursday that the situation was so dire in the farming area that not many farmers would realize yields of more than 50 percent. "The rains stopped when the maize crop was at the critical stage of tasseling and I can say that I will get about 30 percent of the expected yield.

Most farmers in my area will get between 10 and 50 percent of expected yields because the drought has been severe," he said. In Mashonaland East Province, Mark Chiriseri of Gabaza Farm, Seke District, said he was lucky to have planted early and as a result had managed to get a decent crop. "The early crop did well but for those who planted late, it's a disaster. If they do not get any more rains in the next week then the whole crop is a write-off. This year is a disaster and I think the government should declare it as such," he said.

Most of Zimbabwe's smallholder farmers are dependent on rain-fed agriculture. President of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union Wonder Chabikwa said recently that the country would harvest about 900,000 tons of maize, down from the 1.7 million tons harvested in 2017/2018. Added to the harvest will be the 500,000 tons in the country's Strategic Grain Reserve to give 1.4 million tons against a national requirement of 1.8 million tons. It is estimated that about 5.3 million Zimbabweans will require food aid in 2019 because of the devastating effects of the drought.

The United Nations recently launched an appeal for 234 million U.S. dollars to provide food aid to about 2.2 million Zimbabweans facing hunger during the year. The appeal was launched following a visit to the country by the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock. The UN said about 5.3 million Zimbabweans - nearly a third of the country's population - would require food aid in 2019 due to the combination of drought and other economic hardships. UN resident coordinator in Zimbabwe Bishow Parajuli said the UN would only be able to assist only 2.2 million.

The humanitarian and resilience building support would be provided to the needy between January and June 2019, Parajuli said. Lowcock said the aid will benefit only vulnerable people both in urban and rural areas including the elderly, women and child-headed families. Donor agencies continue to help mitigate the effects of drought throughout the country. According to the Famine Early Warning System, the World Food Program and partners in October 2018 reached approximately 184,000 beneficiaries in 10 districts.

Plans are in place to scale up to approximately 1.1 million people in 30 districts during the peak of the lean season of January to March. The government also has plans to provide assistance in all 60 rural districts. The drought has also affected the country's capital city Harare, which in March introduced water rationing to ensure that all suburbs receive water at least two days a week.