Africa's famine worsening despite aid. Twice as much aid needed in '85, UN agency says

Memo to the Western world this Christmas: Don't imagine that the African crisis - famine, drought, and refugees - has gone away or is fading.

In fact, the famine is still worsening. Sustained outside help is needed for at least another year. Most urgently, new government commitments of food aid are needed from March through December 1985. Sudan is in deep trouble now.

The message comes from African, United Nations, European, and private relief agency officials who are highly concerned that Africa might be forgotten, temporarily at least, in the rush, glitter, and family concerns of the holiday season.

Officials agree that the surge of public response to famine needs in recent months has saved lives and prodded North American and European governments to provide much more aid than they might otherwise have given.

''But it would be wrong to sit back and think the problem is solved,'' says Mark Bowden, deputy director of overseas operations for Save The Children (UK) in London.

''The top priority now,'' adds Marcus Thompson, disaster coordinator for Oxfam UK, ''is to provide enough food so that Ethiopian farmers can stay on their land instead of pouring into the emergency feeding stations. . . . ''

In Africa as a whole, the food aid gap is growing.

So far, donor pledges of food aid continue only until the end of February. After that there are promises but few definitely scheduled shipments, according to private relief agencies here.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome is so worried that it has, for the first time, issued a warning about African famine for the whole of next year.

''The outlook for cereal supplies in Africa has deterioriated further. . . . The . . . food emergency will continue during 1985,'' says a special feature analysis in the December edition of the FAO publication Food Outlook.

The FAO has reduced its bellwether list of African nations needing urgent food aid from 24 to 21 - but now estimates that the 21 will require almost twice as much food aid in the coming year (5.2 million tons) than the 24 needed last year (2.9 million tons.)

''Of the 5.2 million, 3.7 million tons are covered by donor pledges so far received,'' said an FAO official by telephone from Rome. ''That still leaves 1.5 million. . . .''

In fact, the total is higher: the new FAO figures exclude another 900,000 tons needed for Ethiopia, Chad, and Mali. The FAO considers that these countries lack the ability to receive, unload, and distribute the 900,000 tons (though relief agencies here say conditions have greatly improved in Ethiopia, especially at the port of Assab which is now reportedly unloading 3,000 tons of grain a day).

FAO Director-General Edouard Saouma plans to call a special meeting of donors to Ethiopia on or about Jan. 20 to discuss the needs of ''half a million famine victims who are to be resettled.''

Mr. Saouma says he plans to spend ''up to $5 million'' in extra funds to help the 21 nations listed as most urgently in need to improve their agriculture. He proposes that the UN grain bank (the International Emergency Food Reserve) be boosted from half a million to 2 million standby tons.

Among other major developments:

* The flow of desperate rural communities into emergency feeding centers is growing even larger.

''The number of people coming into feeding stations will increase for the next three or four months,'' says Save The Children's Mark Bowden.

(Mr. Bowden termed an earlier report that secessionist rebels had seized Korem, the biggest feeding camp in the country, as ''not true.'' Communications with Addis Ababa were cut for a day and there was a minor skirmish, but nothing more, he said.)

* The ranks of refugees are swelling daily.

Save The Children (UK) says enormous groups of Ethiopians - between 4,000 and 10,000 in each - are flooding into northern Sudan from Tigre and Gondar Provinces. Worsening Sudan's plight are thousands more refugees from Chad streaming into the Darfur region.

Oxfam cites desperate conditions for the Beja nomads in the Red Sea hills, the refugees coming from east and west, and starving people trekking to the banks of the Nile at Omdurman, Sudan, and into Khartoum itself.

* Donor nations are concerned about plans of the military, and self-proclaimed Marxist, government of Mengistu Haile-Mariam to resettle 500,000 Ethiopians from dried-out northern highlands to more fertile southern areas.

The Reagan administration sees this as at least partly political as well as humanitarian, transferring people from rebel-held areas in Tigre and Eritrea into government-held areas.

British relief agencies think that the plans cannot really succeed because vast sums will be needed to provide water, livestock, roads, and other services for the farmers being moved.

The issue helped touch off a sharp verbal clash in recent days between US Agency for International Development administrator M. Peter McPherson and the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington on whether donors were actually doing enough.

* In the seven nations of the Sahel region in West Africa, ''prospects for the crops' now being harvested . . . have deteriorated sharply,'' according to the FAO. In the northern Sahel, final yields are ''likely to be even worse than the drought-reduced crop of last year.''

Crop prospects were especially bad in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. On a brighter note, the Gambia expected ''normal crop conditions,'' while Senegal and Bourkina Fasso (Upper Volta) expected to do better than last year, and Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Benin, and Togo were ''back to normal.''

''Individuals in the West should keep on giving what they can - not only because of their own feelings, but also to keep up pressure on governments,'' says Oxfam's Marcus Thompson.

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