Despite war and drought, fewer Chadians go hungry

Less than a year after thousands of Chadians faced starvation, the prospects for most of them are today far brighter. Despite the ravages of two decades of intermittent drought and war, few people will die of starvation in Chad this year, and the percentage of those who are undernourished continues to drop.

Although the situation here ''remains serious,'' as one United Nations relief official observed, ''there is no question that a major disaster has been averted.'' The reason for the dramatically improved conditions: the quick and positive response by both the Chadian government and different public and private relief organizations.

The relief effort in Chad provides a stark contrast to the grave situation now unfolding in Ethiopia, where East-West politics have interfered with the steady flow of aid and left perhaps as many as 200,000 Ethiopians facing famine this year.

In Chad, the relief effort began late last year when it became apparent that war and drought had cut deeply into the harvest.

Explained one high-ranking US aid official, ''The reason for the shortfall was twofold - one man-made and the other natural.''

The man-made reason stemmed from the civil war last year. The fighting forced many Chadians to abandon their fields, and as a result they were unable to plant or harvest their crops. The war also disrupted the normal south-to-north flow of food which northern Chadians rely on for their survival.

The natural reason for the shortfall was the drought which has plagued different areas of the Sahel region since the early 1970s.

In recognizing the severity of the situation and its own inability to fund a massive relief program, the newly installed government of President Hissein Habre went immediately to the international community for assistance.

It was at the January 1983 International Assistance to Chad Conference, sponsored by the UN and the Organization of African Unity, that foreign governments and private volun-tary relief organizations began to respond.

In the six months since that conference, such major donors as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UN World Food Program, the United States Agency for International Development, and France's Funds for Aid and Cooperation have provided more than 20,000 metric tons in emergency food assistance.

In addition to these major donors, many private organizations including Care, the Red Cross, and Medecins Sans Frontieres, have contributed significantly to the relief efforts.

Besides distributing more than 5,000 metric tons of emergency food supplies in Chad since October 1982, Care has established numerous programs to repair the nation's badly damaged health care, housing, and agricultural facilities.

The Red Cross has established 32 emergency centers in the hardest-hit Chadian provinces of Guerra and Biltine, feeding 60,000 Chadians daily for the past six months.

And Medecins Sans Frontieres, comprised of French, Belgian, and Swiss physicians and nurses, has established numerous feeding centers and is in the process of beginning a $5 million project to reconstruct and reorganize the entire health-care system in Chad.

Despite the considerable effort of these organizations, however, the relief effort in Chad has had its problems, anchored in both internal and external events.

Much of the 20,000 metric tons of emergency food aid which have already arrived remains bottlenecked in the Chadian capital instead of being distributed to the hardest-hit areas to the east and south.

The recent border war between Chad and Nigeria has had a severe effect on the distribution of emergency food aid. As one Western relief official said, ''Since most of the food aid going to Chad is trucked overland from Nigeria, the closure of the border by the Nigerians held up food aid for quite some time.''

Although the frontier between Chad and Nigeria is now open, the official pointed out that ''the Nigerian government has only given their trucks enough fuel to go to N'Djamena, thus preventing the rapid distribution of the aid once it reaches the Chadian capital.''

Those problems are further compounded by difficult circumstances within Chad, primarily the civil war which in recent months has engulfed at least half the country.

Not only has the war drained the Chadian government's already meager resources and diverted some of its attention away from the relief effort, but it has also had a direct effect on the food-distribution programs already in operation. Said Kevin Henery, one of the directors of Care-Chad, ''The war has definitely slowed down the pace of some of our activities and forced us to suspend others.''

In spite of these problems, most Chadian and Western relief officials here agree that because of the emergency relief program of the past six months, ''for the time being'' - as one such relief worker concluded - ''we have enough food to take care of the people at least until the next harvest.''

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