African weathermen see more drought, don't know how to stop it

Top weathermen in Africa are baffled. Is Africa going to have to live with the present serious drought situation forever? Weathermen are throwing up their hands helplessly after 14 years of drought, now moving unrelentingly from the devastated Sudano-Sahel region to southern and eastern Africa.

Drought, it seems, has become ''self-sustaining'' and nobody knows how it starts or when it will end. With drought comes losses of livestock and crops, famine, and drying up of water sources. And in Mozambique, 150 cattle die monthly.

The conclusion reached by weather and climate analysts at a recent meeting in Nairobi seemed to be that Africa faces a prolonged drought, one that is no longer centered on the Sahel but is extending fast to southern Africa round the Kalahari Desert and also to eastern Africa.

Expert opinion seems to be that nothing can be done to combat drought except to mend its effects with international aid, food, and crop seeds for stricken nations.

Thirty-four African nations concerned about drought plan to meet again in late February, this time in Ethiopia, to discuss what moves they might make. These nations include 24 of the so-called least developed countries and 22 countries most seriously affected by the drought.

Drought has contributed to Africa's serious food shortages. In Lesotho, for instance, the average yield of maize and other crops has fallen from 200,000 tons to 53,000 tons. More than half of Lesotho's 1.2 million people are said to be in need of emergency food.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that usable pastoral areas in the arid and semiarid lands have been reduced by 25 percent since a drought in 1968.

The volume of water spilling over the Volta River dam has fallen by one-third and the power station has stopped. Lake Chad is shrinking year by year.

Dr. Thomas Potter, director of the World Meteorological Organization's world climate program, told the Nairobi meeting that some affected parts of southern Africa had not previously experienced drought for any significant length of time.

Experts were asked if there had been a climate change, as suggested by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The director of UN Environment Program's world climate impact studies project, Peter Usher, says there is no evidence of such a change.

But he said there is a general consensus that a climate change may occur as a result of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

There was speculation in Nairobi about changes of ground cover caused by overgrazing, changes in production of clouds and rainfall, the reflection of sunlight off the land and sea, and how deserts possibly feed on themselves.

Drought, some weather analysts say, may bear some sort of relationship to dust layers in the atmosphere which are suspected of creating changes in the way the sun shines on the earth and hence on the general conditions that affect drought.

Dr. Laban Ogallo, a meteorologist at the University of Nairobi, says, ''Even with the present technology, the meteorologists have not been able to give an accurate prediction of weather beyond at most seven days, simply because we do not know what is controlling weather.'' He says that so far the weather situation in Africa looks as though it will remain the same.

''We cannot see any facts which give some change,'' Dr. Ogallo says.

What is clear, Dr. Potter says, is that no known method exists to predict with accuracy the continuation, cessation, or recurrence of drought. Another big problem is that countries affected are slow in coming forward with statistics.

The meeting in Ethiopia is expected to take up the lack of progress on the UN Environment Program's desertification plan of action - launched in 1977 to combat the growth of deserts.

The original program had an auspicious start, but little progress has been toward the goals outlined more than six years ago. One of the main reasons so little has been accomplished is that the poor countries affected by drought have little money to sink into a restoration program.

One idea expected to come up at the Addis Ababa conference is that countries affected should institute an early warning system to alert the world to developing climatic and crop problems - a program similar to that already in operation in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and elsewhere.

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