London — Wanted urgently: more trucks to carry emergency food from African ports and airfields to camps holding tens of millions of starving people. In Ethiopia alone, a special United Nations office now coordinating aid estimates that 400 6- or 10-ton trucks are needed now, and another 400 trucks inside the country require immediate repair and extra trailers.
Estimates of the numbers of hungry people in drought-stricken Ethiopia (population about 42 million) range from 7 million to 10 million.
According to Kurt Janssen, recently appointed assistant UN secretary-general for emergency operations in Ethiopia, $140 million is required quickly from donors to pay for better internal distribution of food by road in Ethiopia. This is part of a total package of emergency food and related aid needed for Ethiopia through the end of 1985 which Mr. Janssen estimates at $394 million.
The Ethiopian government itself sees the need for more trucks as much higher. A government spokesman told a meeting of international donors in New York Dec. 18 that Ethiopia needed 496 10-ton trucks, 834 22-ton trucks, and 50 cross-country vehicles.
The need for extra trucks is growing fast in other hard-hit African countries as well.
It is rising in the Sudan, which is being swamped by refugees from Ethiopia to the east and from Chad to the west. And it is rising in the Sahelian countries in West Africa, in Somalia, and in Mozambique in southeast Africa.
European, not American, trucks are required. Part of Africa's colonial legacy is a network of repair shops and spare parts for West German, French, and Italian trucks. Such networks do not exist for Americanmodels.
The Daimler-Benz company in West Germany has already donated a number of its Mercedes trucks.
``Mercedes is helping the Ethiopian government with spare parts and has promised 90 lorries [trucks],'' says a European Community disaster relief official in Brussels.
``The Fiat company has promised 138 trucks, and the Austrian government [has promised] 20 trucks.''
European Community sources say the Soviet Union has promised 300 trucks for Ethiopia, but that it is unclear whether any have actually arrived. East Germany says it is supplying 35 trucks as part of an aid package worth 20 million marks ($6.4 million).
According to EC field officials stationed in Maputo, Mozambique, the country rapidly needs ``hundreds'' of 5- to 10-ton trucks. The officials say the entire internal distribution system will collapse unless fuel is sent in for existing fleets: 50,000 liters are said to be needed for one province alone for a single month.
``Even five to 10 trucks provided right now would make a substantial difference,'' said one EC official in a telephone interview. The cost of one 22-ton Mercedes truck bought from Johannesburg is reported to be 45,000 European Currency Units. (Each ECU is worth 77 cents.)
Both United Nations and United States officials would like to see international truckmakers provide more trucks quickly.
``Since European trucks are widely used in Africa, we prefer to concentrate on food aid and let other donors handle the trucks,'' says one Agency for International Development (AID) official in Washington.
``We have provided money to rent trucks in the Sudan, however.''
US AID has also recently provided $l million to buy trucks in Harare, Zimbabwe, for use in Mozambique.
The US role remains considerable. In Ethiopia, American law forbids any ``development'' (long-term) aid because the military-Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam nationalized American property without compensation when it took power in 1974. Washington thus prefers to rely on food and other items considered to be clearly of an emergency type.
However, the US Department of Transportation has just sent a team of experts to the Sahel region of West Africa to assess the need for trucks and other items. A report is expected soon, and could be followed by more direct US transport aid to the Sahel, where drought conditions are steadily worsening.
In Ethiopia, the Mengistu government did take a step recently, when it freed between 300 and 500 military trucks to carry grain from the Red Sea port of Assab. The port is now so empty that Addis Ababa and the UN World Food Program in Rome are warning that much more food is needed throughout next year.
One big potential donor of trucks is Japan.
Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abev recently paid a rare personal visit to Ethiopia. At the donors' meeting in New York Dec. 18, Japanese delegates were actively inquiring how Tokyo could do more.
They said Japan had provided $3.4 million in aid since 1983. Japan had provided $1.1 million in aid in 1984 alone, and planned an extra $1 million, together with $269,000 for refugees and $810,000 through UNICEF (the UN children's fund) for emergency medical teams and finding underground water supplies.
The Japanese Red Cross had provided another $1.2 million in aid, the officials said, and was trying to collect one million blankets for starving people camping outside food shelters at night.
``The Japanese did not talk about trucks specifically, but they are anxious to do more to help, and trucks could be one way,'' said a UN source.
``Even two or three trucks sent right now to Ethiopia could make a difference.''
Japanese vehicles are well-known in East Africa, especially the four-wheeled-drive Toyota Landcruiser, which is cheaper than the British Range Rover.
The $140 million said by Mr. Janssen to be needed for distribution in Ethiopia includes: (1) A port-handling and truck subsidy for $1.3 million tons of grain set at $103 million for the next 12 months, (2) spare parts and improvements to 400 existing trucks costing about $3 million, (3) 300 22-ton trucks and trailers for the next 12 months at a price of $11 million, and (4) radio communications for $1 million.
``What Ethioipia has done,'' says an official with the UN World Food Program (WFP) in Rome, ``is to use trucks from the local Natraco rental company, and to hope that some donors will foot the bill. . . .
``Yes, donors are being told what's needed.
``We at WFP are urging donors now to consult with our office in Addis [Ababa] before sending any more food shipments. So far the Addis government has moved grain well from Assab, but bottlenecks could occur if donors don't coordinate their shipments from now on.''