United Nations, N.Y. — The Western world gave generously to help the Ethiopian famine. Now there's a ``new Ethiopia'' -- strategic eastern Sudan, where drought, economic chaos, and more than 1 million refugees are combining to produce ``what could be one of the biggest human tragedies of all time.'' So says a senior United Nations official just back from meeting President Jaafar Nimeiry in Khartoum and helping forge a deal that has saved the lives of 95,000 refugees from northern Ethiopia, whose fast-growing Sudanese camp at Wad Kowli was about to run out of water.
The 95,000 are being moved to a new camp at Khashm el Girba, just as the river and water holes at Wad Kowli were giving out.
But refugees are flooding in from the Ethiopian provinces of Eritrea and Tigre so quickly that the senior UN man, Undersecretary-General Maurice Strong, estimates that 600,000 more could soon join the 1 million already in the desert of eastern Sudan. For every refugee, he estimates that five local Sudanese are displaced from their homes: 5 million Sudanese in all.
On his first day back at the UN after meeting Nimeiry and the governor of Sudan's northeastern province adjoining Ethiopia, Mr. Strong had this message for Western donors, both individuals and governments:
``The response will have to be very quick, and on a scale beyond anything yet seen. The food deficit in the Sudan -- the amount needed over and above pledges and deliveries so far -- is 400,000 metric tons.
``The United States government has been quick to see the need, and is pulling out the stops, but the next few months are the critical time. We have a very short fuse on what could be one of the biggest human tragedies of all time.
``Right now, it need not happen. If the aid comes in, it can be averted. But. . . ''
Compounding the crisis are:
Hundreds of thousands of refugees coming into western and southern Sudan from Chad and Uganda.
An economic situation so dire that the US, Saudi Arabia, West Germany, and Britain are freezing or reducing economic aid to Khartoum until the Nimeiry government agrees on a plan with the International Monetary Fund to pay longstanding debts. However, US food aid -- 160,000 metric tons approved so far, worth $39 million, and another 54,000 tons worth $26 million earmarked for Ethiopian refugees -- is to continue. (Libya, meanwhile, has offered to pay Sudan economic aid equivalent to the amount that the US has frozen.)
Strong is executive coordinator of new UN machinery set up to alleviate the impact of famine in Africa. The new body is called the Office for Emergency Operations for Africa and is headed by the administrator of the UN Development Program, Bradford Morse.
Strong is a millionaire Canadian businessman now serving his fourth tour of duty in a UN career that began in 1947. He began the Canadian foreign aid program, headed the UN Environment Program, and until recently was head of the Canadian government body called Canada Development and Investment Corporation.
He has been awarded 24 honorary university degrees.
On his latest trip to Sudan, which began Feb. 11, he found that the country urgently needs gasoline, diesel fuel, trucks, and tires in addition to food. The UN, he said, was moving in a food management team of 60 people to work with the new Sudanese National Commission on Drought and Desertification. UN officials will work in Khartoum and in Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast.
When Strong reached the main city of northeastern Sudan, Kassala, he found an impasse over Wad Kowli, the fast-growing refugee camp. Aid officials were warning that water was about to run out. A visiting British parliamentary delegation headed by Sir Anthony Kershaw, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, had been unable to persuade Kassala's Governor Shash to move the 95,000 Ethiopian refugees to nearby Khashm el Girba. Unless the governor agreed, the central government in Khartoum could not act, Strong said. Governor Shash is a senior, experienced man who ranks higher than a Cabinet member.
``His view was that he had done all he could in taking in 1 million refugees,'' Strong said, ``and took the position that Khartoum must now set up new camps in the central region to ease the strain on his own people, who were seeing refugees compete for food, water, and land.
``I thanked him for all he had done, praised his efforts, and promised that I would put his case to President Nimeiry as strongly as I could, if he would agree to move the 95,000 refugees to Girba on humanitarian grounds.''
Governor Shash agreed. When Strong met Nimeiry in Khartoum Feb. 13, he stressed the need for an immediate decision.
According to Strong, Nimeiry dictated an order on the spot, in his presence, for new camps to be prepared in the Blue Nile Province around Rahad. Later the Sudan Commissioner for Refugees told Strong he had received the presidential order and was working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on the new camps.
Strong said Nimeiry was able to solve one other problem: vehicle tires held up in a Port Sudan warehouse for almost a year. UNICEF officials told Strong that a lack of tires was preventing trucks from carrying food, and was their single biggest bottleneck. Sudanese officials wanted them to purchase tires from a new Sudanese tire plant. UNICEF argued that the imported ones had been brought in before the new plant had begun. Nimeiry ordered that the imported tires be released, Strong said.