The U.N. food agency has declared its highest-level emergency in drought-stricken southern Africa and is appealing for $204 million immediately to purchase food and transport it to the region to help millions of hungry people.

World Food Program Executive Director Ertharin Cousin told reporters in a telephone briefing Tuesday from hard-hit Malawi that the El Nino-induced drought has devastated crops and caused harvests to fail.

She said currently 18 million people need emergency food assistance in seven countries severely affected by El Nino — Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

But Cousin said WFP is anticipating an escalation in needs later this year and estimating that approximately 33 million people will be impacted by El Nino and the upcoming La Nina, which could bring severe flooding.