FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009 file photo, village women receive aid from the charity organisation, Oxfam International, at a distribution centre in Chirumhanzi about 250 Kilometers South east of Harare. The United Nations says about half of Zimbabwe’s population faces severe hunger amid a devastating drought and economic collapse. The World Food Program notes a “vicious cycle of skyrocketing malnutrition that’s hitting women and children hardest.” More than 7 million people overall are in need. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — About half of Zimbabwe’s population faces severe hunger amid a devastating drought and economic collapse, the United Nations said Tuesday, noting a “vicious cycle of skyrocketing malnutrition that’s hitting women and children hardest.”

The World Food Program said it plans to more than double the number of people it helps to more than 4 million. More than 7 million people overall are in need.

A U.N. expert on the right to food last week said Zimbabwe is on the brink of man-made starvation and the number of people needing help is “shocking” for a country not in conflict.

With poor rains expected before the harvest in April, the scale of hunger will worsen, the World Food Program’s executive director David Beasley said in a statement.

Zimbabwe’s crushing economic crisis, the worst in a decade, and a drought across southern Africa will complicate aid delivery as prices for basic items soar and food supplies are lower than normal, the U.N. said.

Inflation is “skyrocketing to over 490%,” according to the U.N. expert, Hilal Elver. That’s the second highest rate in the world after Venezuela.

Zimbabwe’s crisis includes high unemployment, cash and water shortages and electricity outages of up to 19 hours a day.

Elver said she found stunted and underweight children, mothers too hungry to breastfeed their babies and medicine shortages in hospitals during her 10-day visit to the once prosperous country.

She warned that the food crisis could spark conflict if not averted.

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