Fly over any part of Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia, and parts of northern Uganda and you will see thousands of square miles of brown, sun-scorched earth. The rains are overdue, and some climatologists say the weather pattern is changing.
Millions of people are facing starvation in East Africa and will need aid. To make matters worse, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says there are likely to be sharp declines of world cereal stocks, while world food imports (including those of the Soviet Union) will rise.
Experience here shows that the aid donor most likely to be called upon is the United States at a time when, ironically, the US aid program is likely to be cut back.
Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, in an unusual statement about famine, said this past weekend that 6 to 8 million Tanzanians were facing hunger this season because of drought. Last year, Tanzania imported 200,000 tons of corn, wheat, and rice. Some of it was purchased outright, some of it was aid.
But this year there is no foreign exchange for imports, so Tanzania is asking donor countries (mainly the United States) for 100,000 tons of mixed grains to tide it over the crisis months of June and August. There is concern that the next harvest will fail, leading to famine.
Critics of Tanzania say that drought is not alone to blame for the country's plight. They cite the virtual collapse of the farm collectivization system, which has endangered food production.
Kenya, meanwhile, is brown as old leather. There have been serious food shortages all this year brought on by drought, poor distribution of food crops, smuggling, and unwise export decisions. Kenya used to be self-sufficient in cereals such as maize. But the maize crop failed this year in the growing areas of the Rift Valley, and the "small rains" are overdue.
Some 70,000 tons of maize sent by the United States is now arriving, bought by Kenya on concessionary terms. Some reports speak of famine among the Turkana people around Lake Turkana, but this has been denied by the Kenya government.
In Uganda, acute hunger and starvation are reported among the people of the Karamoja area in the West Nile district, where UN teams have been working.
One team says that up to 20 percent of the children are malnourished. Uganda has appealed for $6.3 million worth of food aid.
An observer who has just returned to Nairobi from Ethiopia says drought has struck hard and some 5 million people are in danger of starvation. Western aid is hoped for, in spite of the Soviet and Cuban forces that dominate the country.
In Somalia, where drought is endemic, more than a million refugees from the guerrilla war between Ethiopians and Somalis in the Ogaden desert region are being fed by UN relief organizations.
Both President Nyerere and President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya have appealed to farmers and peasants to grow more drought- resistant crops such as sorghum and millet, rather than maize, the East African staple. But there is some resistance to this because food habits in Africa are hard to change.
One problem in East Africa is the practice of growing cash crops such as coffee, tea, sisal, and pyrethrum, instead of food. The cash crops bring money to the farmer and foreign exchange to the country. Some farmers do not even grow food for themselves, especially if they have small acreages.
The FAO's current food outlook report says the world cereal stocks will decline by 40 million tons to 210 million, leaving the reserve margin at only 30 million tons. In 1980, world cereal production (wheat, rice, coarse grains) was 1.4 billion tons.
The drought also is killing thousands of wild animals in Kenya. Game wardens have seen carcasses of eland, wildebeeste, and other animals that have died because of scarcity of water and grass.
The Somali government has just issued a world appeal for 470,000 tons of food aid to meet an expected shortfall, largely due to the influx of refugees from the Ogaden, and drought. Stocks of some commodities are meas ured only in days, said a spokesman.