South Asia reels from drought and famine

Just as India is recovering from the devastating cyclone that ripped through the East last November, wells have recently dried up and crops have withered in the drought afflicting the nation's sun-blistered west and central regions.

Today, up to 80 million people lack water, and hundreds of thousands of animals are perishing in what locals call the worst drought in a century. Villagers desperate for a drink dig wells with their bare hands, some reaching at least six feet before finding dirty, saline water.

Large parts of western and central India, particularly Gujarat and Rajasthan states, have been hardest hit by the crisis. Officials say it is impossible to estimate how many people have died, but urge international intervention to stem acute hunger, mass exodus, and locust invasions.

In past weeks, the ravaging drought has also spread to neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan. The worst-affected areas here have not seen adequate rainfall for up to eight years, officials say. The World Food Program (WFP) is feeding 400,000 people in Afghanistan's southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, Uruzgan, and Nimroz.

Khalid Mansour of the WFP in Afghanistan emphasizes just how dire the circumstances are. " When [even] a camel dies from lack of water, it is a drought."

As part of its relief efforts, the WFP wants to avoid a mass exodus more than anything. "We think it is better to tell [Afghani] villagers to stay in their homes, dig deeper wells, and clean up the irrigation canals," Mansour said. "If they leave, it could destroy the whole village structure." As an incentive to stay put, the WFP is offering Afghanis additional flour.

Indeed, migration is a problem - especially since some of the hardest hit Afghanis are the Koochi nomads, who have lost approximately 80 percent of their livestock due to the desperate lack of water.

Migration is also a serious concern in Pakistan. Officials there say almost two-thirds of the country's largest province of Baluchistan and the Thar desert area in adjoining Sindh province have been hard hit, forcing people to flee.

International relief organization Oxfam, after its experts had visited the worst-hit districts in Pakistan, said earlier this month that over the past three years some 90 percent of livestock had died.

On Saturday, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban made a formal request for aid to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.

"Thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of people could die if they did not receive urgent help," the Afghan Islamic Press quoted spokesman Mullah Abdul Haye Mutmain as saying.

But authorities in Southeast Asia say there is hope that the situation might improve in coming months. "Yes, there is a drought, but there are going to be rains in seven weeks," says Satyajit Shah, a rural specialist at the UN Development Program in New Delhi. In just 200 hours during June, July, and August, India will receive 80 percent of its annual rainfall. However, almost 80 percent of that will wash out to sea.

Experts like Mr. Shah urge that long-lasting, not just band-aid, solutions need to be developed in the meantime to retain as much of that water as possible.

*From wire services.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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