Can drought help to overcome war - even temporarily? Could the enormous need for emergency food in Ethiopia, and the immense stirring of public conscience and response in the Western world, help bring about a cease-fire or at least a lower level of fighting in the secessionist provinces of Eritrea and Tigre?
Private relief agencies here at least hope so. Intense behind-the-scenes negotiations are going on between some agencies and the Ethiopian government of Mengistu Haile Mariam to seek ways to reduce fighting and to allow urgently needed truck convoys of food to move freely through contested areas.
Some of the areas worst affected by the prolonged drought here are in Eritrea and Tigre, to the north of Addis Ababa, where the Mengistu governnment holds the capital cities and their immediate environs but guerrillas occupy the remaining areas.
Tens of thousands of people have walked for days to reach emergency feeding stations in Makale, the capital of Tigre, but not all can be fed with the food available.
Until now, a number of private relief agencies have worked only in government-controlled areas. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that more food is urgently needed in guerrilla areas.
Some relief agency officials have said privately in the United States and elsewhere that government officials have withheld some food aid from civilians in guerrilla areas.
But the scale of the famine is so large that a number of attitudes are changing here.
''What we need now,'' says a relief agency official in Addis Ababa who is closely involved in the negotiations, ''is either a cease-fire or assured noninter-ference with noncombatant convoys.''
While relief workers and government officials here are delighted that a convoy of 42 emergency food trucks reached Makale by road from the port of Massawa late Oct. 27, they noted that the convoy had to be accompanied by a government military escort.
''How much better it would be,'' said another relief worker who was reluctant to be identified because of the political sensitivities involved, ''if there was a cease-fire so that the starving children and their parents could be freely fed until the rains came.
''It is something many of us are praying for, I can tell you....''
Relief agency sources do not want to comment on the behind-the-scenes talks yet. ''A number of things are going on,'' an official said.
The apparent hope is that the government might offer a cease-fire to guerrillas in Eritrea and Tigre, and that the desperate need of the people in the guerrilla areas might prompt the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front and its counterpart in Tigre to accept.
At the moment regular amounts of food aid can reach an estimated 40,000 people in makeshift camps around Makale only by air for fear of attacks on road convoys. The road convoy that got through Oct. 27 was the first for several months.
For the past week the government has been flying supplies in from Asmara on Soviet-built Antonov-12 transport planes. The US government has offered to pay for fuel for these planes, but it is not clear here whether in fact the Mengistu government has agreed. Some reports say that US-financed fuel is being used, and that Soviet advisers here have objected to the move.
The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross has also been flying in supplies on a Hercules C-130 aircraft. Reports from London indicate that the Marxist Ethiopian government has ruled out a British plan to fly in emergency supplies on two Royal Air Force Hercules C-130s.
These reports said Addis Ababa did not want Western military planes overflying Eritrea and Tigre.
But the government has approved several civilian flights, including one organized by the British government, to bring in supplies.
Clearly, the Mengistu government is extremely wary of foreign aid that might come in military form. It is not yet known how it might react to the relief agency pleas for lessened fighting in Eritrea and Tigre.
The most optimistic scenario here would be that fighting dies down quickly and remains at a low ebb while the drought continues and truck convoys move. This includes the hope that all sides might see advantages in at least a partial settlement of the underlying conflict.
The most pessimistic view is that the fighting will go on, as it has in Eritrea for the past 22 years, and that airlifts and escorted convoys will continue to be necessary.
Meanwhile a planned request by five relief agencies to the US government for 215,000 tons of emergency food to cover the rest of this year and 1985 moved a stage further Monday, as the agencies put the finishing touches on their document.
''The famine is now so big that we realized that our request is still small compared to the overall need,'' said Dr. Tony Atkins of World Vision, one of the five agencies.
''This is a crucial period. The focus of relief efforts is shifting. First we wanted more emergency food on the water. Now that more food seems to be coming, we are turning to improving the port situation and to the need for airlifts.''
World Vision runs its own twin-engine plane here twice-daily between Addis Ababa and northern Wollo Province to support relief efforts in the Alamata area.