WASHINGTON — WHILE the world's attention has focused on events in the Persian Gulf, a new hunger crisis of alarming scope has been developing in sub-Saharan Africa, according to American officials. Drought and civil unrest have put millions of Africans in danger of starvation. The food shortfall in the hardest-hit nation, Sudan, is 10 times greater than it was during a 1988 famine, which claimed 250,000 lives.
Food-distribution agreements between warring African factions are essential if widespread tragedy is to be avoided. "The human suffering caused by man-made events could be significantly reduced if the political will existed to do so," said Scott Spangler, Agency for International Development assistant administrator for Africa, at a recent US State Department briefing.
The countries at risk include:
Sudan. More than 9 million Sudanese, out of a population of 26 million, are thought to need emergency food aid. Donors estimate that 1 million tons of food will be needed this year.
Drought has caused the almost total failure of traditional small agriculture throughout much of the country. Mechanized farms have suffered a 50 percent reduction in output. The continuing civil war in southern Sudan makes movement of food there difficult. "We cannot ensure that the needed food will get to all of the needy in time," said Mr. Spangler.
Ethiopia. Ten years of civil war and arid conditions have led to food shortages affecting 5 million to 6 million Ethiopians. The United States is planning on donating about one-third of the 750,000 tons of food aid needed this year. Drought has affected only parts of the country, resulting in food shortages that are more regional than national.
It has been possible to move food in some areas affected by fighting - an agreement between the Ethiopian government and Eritrean rebels has opened the port of Massawa to relief shipments, for instance. But a recent upsurge in fighting has US officials concerned.
Angola. The problems of drought and unrest in Angola have occurred against the background of 15 years of national economic stagnation.
Almost 2 million people need food help, with some 800,000 of them seriously affected. Seed shortages mean this year's harvest is expected to last only until July.
Last October the United Nations brokered an agreement between the Angolan government and UNITA rebels for safe passage of relief supplies. The pact broke down months later, but as of March 11 the fighting factions had agreed to restart relief shipments, according to the State Department.
Liberia. The brutal Liberian civil war has put some 1.9 million people at risk. To date the US has shipped 100,000 tons of food supplies to the battered country, with 90,000 more tons already in the aid pipeline. A peace conference this week could mark a turning point in Liberia's fortunes.
Mozambique and Somalia also face potential food problems. In Somalia in particular, fighting has made the situation so uncertain aid officials don't know what the country needs.
US officials say they are trying hard to head off more African famine. The planned US government contribution for 1991 totals about 1 million tons of food for the sub-Saharan region, worth about $395 million.
But US officials don't really know how much their efforts can ease the growing tragedy in Africa. "This is an evolving situation," said Spangler.