DAVEL, South Africa -- Koos Duur knelt on a patch of the fertile soil that for years has put the milled white corn known here as pap on the tables of millions of black families in southern Africa. His chapped hand grasped a stalk, which crumbled into dust at his touch.
"If we can survive this year," the 54-year-old farmer said later, lighting a cigarette, "then I think we will be able to stay in farming. But this year is our crossroads."
One of the worst droughts in African history -- even more devastating than the 1984 drought in Ethiopia and Sudan -- has blotted out most of the grain crop across a wide area of southern Africa, from Zambia and Malawi to Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Hundreds of farm workers in South Africa already have been laid off and evicted from their homes. Zimbabwe is plagued with food and water shortages. Tens of thousands of cattle have starved to death.
The drought, a result of the El Nino phenomenon that has created unseasonable weather worldwide, has caused crop losses ranging from 50 percent to 90 percent in southern Africa. And those failures will affect more than 30 million Africans over the next year, the U.S. Congress was told recently.
About 12 million metric tons of food will have to be imported to prevent mass starvation, and, in countries such as Zimbabwe and Malawi, serious political instability. In ordinary years, only about 2 million tons of imported food is needed in the region.
"Only a massive international relief effort will avert widespread food shortages and famine," the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization declared recently in a statement from its Rome headquarters.
Foreign governments and aid agencies say large-scale loss of life is not necessarily inevitable; they already are arranging to get food to ports on the southern tip of the continent. The United States has pledged about $235 million in food aid.
But the impact of the drought is just beginning to be felt now, in the midst of the traditional harvest time. The rainy season passed with barely a shower and fields of stubbled corn stalks bake beneath the cloudless blue skies of the Southern Hemisphere's autumn.
Millions of acres that once produced food are being harvested for cattle feed; millions of others cannot be salvaged. And the long, dry winter is fast approaching.
Aid agencies say that the relative economic prosperity of the region may prevent starvation on the scale seen in more disadvantaged countries such as Ethiopia in the mid-1980s. But the last stocks of grain are disappearing from store shelves in much of the region, and officials say the worst is yet to come.
"It's like a slow-moving film," the U.S. Agency for International Development told Congress. "You know it's coming, but it takes a while for it to happen."
The State Department has warned that drought-induced economic hardships could trigger civil unrest in countries with fledgling multiparty democracies, such as Zambia, and other politically fragile countries such as Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
"A political settlement [in African countries] will need to be strongly reinforced by economic growth if it is to succeed," Jeff Davidow, acting assistant secretary of state for Africa, recently told Congress.
The drought has hit hardest in the economic powerhouses of the continent, Zimbabwe and South Africa, which usually export grain to their neighbors.
It also has devastated crops in Malawi, a country of 9 million people that supports 1 million refugees from war-wracked Mozambique. Economic woes in Malawi have triggered some of the first public resistance in decades to the government of Kamuzu Hastings Banda, the self-appointed president for life.