DESPITE the arrival of ample food aid from abroad, 7 million Ethiopians face the prospect of a severe famine in the next month or two. The problem, increasingly serious in many drought-stricken third-world nations, is getting the food to those who need it in the midst of a civil war. Nowhere is the politicization of famine more evident than in Ethiopia. Almost half of those in need live in the dry northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigre, where rebels have been waging civil wars for 26 years and 14 years, respectively.
Guerrillas in both provinces have mined roads and ambushed food convoys. The Ethiopian government has often opened roads in rebel areas only for brief periods. In an ominous new development last week the government complicated the task of getting supplies through by ordering all foreign relief workers to leave the northern provinces; it cited increased rebel fighting there and said workers can return when guerrilla troops are defeated. Rebels say the government is trying to inflict that defeat by starving innocent people.
Food aid has become a weapon of war; distributing it is a hazardous occupation.
Yet Ethiopia learned from the severity of its 1984-85 famine. This time an early-warning system triggered a prompt and generous world response. Ethiopia's Marxist government now has its own relief agency and is more cooperative and efficient. Ethiopia also recently agreed to agricultural reforms, allowing farmers to sell surplus crops on the open market.
Voluntary agencies, eager to avoid spawning the massive, often unsanitary camps that dislocated so many during the last famine, rely more on airplane deliveries. But costs are higher and aid still does not reach people in remote villages.
More remains to be done:
Ethiopian bureaucracy must be streamlined. Even though the main port of Assab is working at 130 percent of capacity, unloading supplies around the clock, customs processing needs to be expedited.
All sides must recognize that even in war, victims of famine have a right to humanitarian help. The world community must do all it can to ensure access to such aid along open and safe roads. The United States has appealed to the Soviets, who back the Ethiopian government, to use their influence in resuming food supplies to drought-pressed northerners.
Most suggestions short of these carry more problems than they would cure. Labeling trucks, for instance, as food carriers leads to suspicions on each side that the other might try to hitch a free ride for guns and other war supplies. Voluntary agencies, who want to remain neutral in civil wars, don't want government military escorts for their convoys; the ``protection,'' they say, would make them more rather than less vulnerable to rebel attack.
The best long-term answer is to press for political solutions to the growing number of civil wars in the third world. All work against the best distribution of food aid and crop production. The world community should emphasize the need for negotiations and discourage outside funding for rebel movements unless legitimate grievances go unresolved. Muslim rebel leaders in Eritrea, for instance, are well supplied with Arab funds and have taken the fight past the point where much of their rank and file still supports it.
Humanitarian aid is a concept plain enough for all the world to accept. Civil wars must not be allowed to get in the way.