When hunger pangs bite, the people of southern Malawi's Shire River valley are resourceful in finding food. Emergency dietary supplements include water-lily roots, called nyika in the Chichewa language.
Digging for nyika can be dangerous, as crocodiles prowl the river. Cooking the tough roots into an edible porridge takes hours and uses copious amounts of firewood stripped from forests already heavily denuded.
Malawi's hunger crisis has become an annual event because of persistent drought and a deepening HIV/Aids pandemic. This year's unusually bad harvest has moved forward the lean season by three months, prompting aid agencies led by the United Nations' World Food Programme (WEP) to launch emergency appeals.
In six southern African countries -- the others are Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland -- 12m people will be "food insecure" by next January, according to the WFP, the main distributor of emergency aid. James Morris, the WFP's executive director, recently called the unfolding problem "the worst humanitarian crisis in the world".
The UN is struggling to raise funds from an international community already grappling with a string of emergencies, from Asia's tsunamis to food crises in Niger, Sudan and Ethiopia. The shortfall has forced the UN to cut corners on aid and intensified calls to support a new fund designed to allow a quicker response to emergencies.
Donors to the UN's emergency appeals, led by the US and the European Union, typically pledge most money only after pictures of hungry people hit TV screens. Aid then reaches stricken areas too late, and is spent on cash-intensive emergency efforts rather than long-term programmes to mitigate hunger.
Pledges for Niger, whose crisis has dropped from world attention lately, meet only about 60 per cent of what the WFP says it needs. In southern Africa, the UN has raised $223m since January, but needs another $185m to buy food until next April's harvest.
The UN's Central Emergency Response Fund, designed to respond quickly to natural disasters or food crises, received $150m of pledges from international donors at last month's World Summit in New York. The amount falls well short of plans for a $500m fund.
The ad hoc and media-driven nature of the UN's fundraising causes it to raise the alarm almost constantly, which some critics say may numb donors to truly acute emergencies. However, speaking to the Financial Times (FT) recently, the WFP's Mr Morris dismissed the criticism: "We do not make this stuff up," he said.
One problem in southern Africa is that food shortages are becoming chronic. Malawi, the hardest-hit country alongside Zimbabwe, has suffered several years of sparse rainfall. A severe drought in 2002-2003, when the UN last led a big appeal for southern Africa, was followed by mediocre harvests in 2003 and 2004.
This year the rains stopped in February, normally the peak of the wet season. Peasants queuing for UN food aid near the southern town of Nsanje recently spoke of "the heat" that caused their maize to wither. Irrigation is rare in Malawi, and most farming is rain-fed.
About 3,000 people queued patiently for 50kg bags of maize. These supply on average five people per month 1,100 calories a day, about half the recommended amount for subsistence. If its latest fundraising appeal succeeds, the WFP wants to add pulses and oil to the ration, to boost the daily calorie count to 1,400.
Human factors, including political turmoil, are contributing to Malawi's problems. Squabbling between President Bingu wa Mutharika and MPs seeking to impeach him has distracted government and parliament from the food crisis. Government tenders called earlier this year for imported and subsidised maize failed for technical reasons, pushing up prices. Maize was available for sale from traders sitting near Nsanje's food-aid supplicants, albeit at prices few could afford.
HIV/Aids has compounded chronic hunger by killing breadwinners and fracturing families. Sitonard Mandwa, a 27-year-old farmer waiting for food, said he was raising three of his dead relatives' orphans in addition to his own daughter.
An Oxfam official urged donors to use southern Africa's crisis as "a window of opportunity" to address its root problems of poverty and HIV/Aids rather than doling out emergency funds. "It's still a sticking-plaster approach," said Neil Townsend, the charity's humanitarian co-ordinator for southern Africa.