Abidjan, Ivory Coast — Rain has become as rare as a square meal for some 32 million people eking out a precarious existence in West Africa's Sahel region, which stretches through eight countries on the fringes of the Sahara Desert.
The Sahel never recovered from the great drought of 1968-74 in which more than half a million people perished. Many analysts have come to think that drought and reliance on emergency food aid now are permanent features of life in the Sahel.
The situation is especially grim in northern Chad, where renewed civil war and partitioning of the country have displaced several thousand people and destroyed the fragile rural economy.
A fresh appeal for international aid has been made by the heads of state of the West African countries belonging to the permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS).
At the same time, the Sahel countries realize that ''aid should not be a palliative but a stimulant for mobilizing internal forces,'' Cape Verde President Aristides Pereira, the outgoing CILSS president, said at the group's biennial summit meeting in Niger Jan. 30 and 31.
Western aid to the Sahel has risen dramatically over the past decade - from $ 200 million to $1.7 billion. Sahel states receive some of the highest per capita aid in Africa - Cape Verde, $242; Mauritania, $126; and Senegal, $86.
But this aid has not prevented the region from drifting further into drought and famine. So Sahel leaders are rethinking how they should use foreign aid.
Because drought seems to be turning into a ''permanent phenomenon'' in the Sahel, the CILSS agreed to switch its focus from short-term ''survival'' to longer-term, integrated rural development programs aimed at food self-sufficiency.
Water supply, irrigation, livestock, cereals storage, and reforestation plans are to be coordinated at a regional level.
In the past, ''Aid has often been misdirected and wastefully absorbed,'' a CILSS member said.
For instance, less than 4.5 percent of Western aid is spent on rain-fed farming, although this accounts for 95 percent of the region's cereal output. Large volumes of aid have disappeared into inefficient government farming agencies, analysts say.
Sahel states, supported by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, argue that in view of the persistent drought it is better to invest in irrigated farming. But this, too, is controversial and its results uncertain. Many projects including rice farming in Mali, have yielded poor results.
But the need for agricultural assistance - for survival - could not be greater, CILSS members agreed. President Pereira says the Sahel states face a cereals deficit of 1.9 million tons in 1984 - more than double that of a decade ago when the great drought ended.
If the present trend continues, the Sahel states may have to import more than half their food by the year 2000, Pereira says.
Food output is increasing by only 1 percent a year against a population growth rate of 2.5 percent. Rainfall has not resumed its former rhythm, and water levels in the region's three main rivers are at their lowest levels ever.
Chad has had three years of virtually no rain and total crop failures resulting in an estimated food deficit of 150,000 tons in 1984, according to the CILSS.
Pastures have been grazed through and water holes have dried up. ''Vast areas are littered with dead trees, shrubs, and animals,'' report US aid officials who recently toured the area with the Chadian minister of natural disasters.
To the west along the Sahel belt toward Senegal and Cape Verde, many millions of people are suffering from thirst and malnutrition.
Analysts are also concerned by the spread of drought south from the Sahel into the coastal states. Guinea Bissau, which recently joined the FAO list of 24 famine-threatened African countries, has applied to join CILSS, as have Guinea and Nigeria.
At present the Cape Verde Islands, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Upper Volta, Gambia, and Chad are members of CILSS.
Although drought has hit large parts of northern Nigeria, observers say it is unlikely this oil-rich West African giant will be admitted to the CILSS.