London — United Nations officials have begun a crash program to open a new 900-mile road for grain trucks into remote western Sudan, in a last-minute effort to avert what might be one of Africa's worst famine disasters. Between 1.2 and 1.3 million people in Darfur Province are threatened with starvation, according to latest estimates from British private relief agencies. After years of inadequate rain, the people are trying to hang on until hoped-for fall harvests.
A months-long effort by the United States to provide them with 1,000 tons of emergency grain a day by rail has failed because of strikes, red tape, and most recently, heavy rains that cut service on the rail line. A European airlift is operating but is unable to provide the necessary volume.
As recriminations fly between the US, the UN, and Europe about how the crisis developed, the UN's World Food Program (WFP) in Rome has seized on the idea of improving an ancient trading route about 100 miles to the north of the railroad tracks.
The WFP is sinking $400,000 into equipment to work from both ends of the northern route -- Omdurman in the east and El Fasher in the west.
Erik Moller, head of the WFP Africa Task Force Secretariat, is just back from four days in Sudan and told this newspaper that he had ordered 10 radio-linked, mobile truck-repair units from Italy to patrol the route to encourage Sudanese private truckers to use it.
``It will take three to four weeks to grade the route,'' Mr. Moller said. ``We also plan to have Italian truck-mounted cranes along the route to haul trucks out of wet spots. . . . Something has to be done to get food out west before the crisis there gets even worse.''
WFP is trucking 400 tons of diesel fuel to El Fasher for use by private agencies and providing another 900 tons to the European Community so that it can expedite the movement of 6,000 tons of grain to the west.
Asked about the WFP plan, US and private agency officials reacted favorably. They differed, however, on who should pay -- although all of them hoped proceeds from the Live Aid global rock concert could be used.
``It's a positive step,'' commented an official with the Agency for International Development in Washington. ``We've had trucks carrying US grain on that route since the end of May, and it certainly needs upgrading.
``Frankly, since the US is carrying most of the aid effort in the Sudan, we'd like to see the Europeans pay for this operation.''
Commented a spokesman for Oxfam, an international relief agency in Oxford, England: ``Frankly, the northern route is the only option now. We haven't used it yet but we're looking at it. . . .
``Something must be done. We've just surveyed 2,540 children in Darfur: Forty-nine percent were so emaciated that, on a UN scale, their weight-for-height ratio was less than 80 percent of normal.
``These are about the worst figures we've seen.''
In London, Hugh Mackay, the overseas operations director for Save The Children (UK), said he had two truck convoys on the northern route as of July 19.
Save The Children already had three engineers and construction trucks at El Fasher, and hoped to buy 40 tons of wire mesh to lay across the wetter spots on the road, he said.
Mr. Mackay welcomed the new WFP plans. ``We think more people face starvation in the Sudan today than in Ethiopia,'' he said.
``You know, the Americans have been doing a good job in the Sudan. . . . OK, so the southern railroad plan blew up on them. I still think Europe should be doing much more.''
Mackay warned that the problem now was maintenance: ``Food is going to be needed well into 1986,'' he said.
``We have to stay flexible. We have to switch convoys between the northern route and the road that runs beside the railway tracks to the south.''
According to the WFP's Moller, ``Now it's time to get our act together, to stop laying blame, and to make sure we get grain to these starving people.''
The northern route runs westward from Omdurman through Sodiri, Umm Badr, Umm Qozein, and on to El Fasher.
WFP will not pave it but will use local rock to strengthen the surface. Diversions are to be created around the wettest points as indicated by a WFP consultant whose report is now completed.