An estimated 1.6 million people are likely to need food assistance in the coming "hunger season" from January to March in Zimbabwe, according to a new report released today by the United Nations and its partners. "The UN World Food Programme (WFP) and our partners are gearing up to respond to this large rise in food needs," said WFP's Country Director for the African country, Felix Bamezon. "Our field staff are already reporting signs of distress in rural areas, including empty granaries and farmers selling off their livestock to make ends meet." The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment estimates national food insecurity levels, and is conducted annually by the Government in collaboration with UN agencies and non-governmental organisations. The report notes that this year's cereal harvest was 1.076,772 metric tons - one third lower than last year, making it the lowest since 2009. In addition, the number of people in need is 60 per cent higher than the one million who needed food assistance during the last lean season. Factors that have affected food security in the country this year include erratic rainfall and dry spells, limited access to agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, a reduction in the planted area, poor farming practices and inadequate crop diversification. To meet the increased food needs, WFP and its partners will undertake food distributions with regionally procured cereals as well imported vegetable oil and pulses, the agency said in a news release. Cash transfers will also be used in areas where there are functioning markets so that people have the flexibility to choose where and from whom they purchase their cereals. In addition, cereal imports from neighbouring countries will be needed to meet food shortages in the coming months. The report identifies the regions of Masvingo, Matabeleland North and South, and parts of Mashonaland, Midlands and Manicaland as the worst-affected areas. WFP said its Seasonal Targeted Assistance programme is due to run until the end of March next year to help address the food shortages. However, while the programme has been budgeted at $119 million, it is currently facing a shortfall of approximately $87 million.