Supplies of food aid for distribution in famine-stricken Chad ran out again recently. The problem highlighted not only a shortage of aid but also the logistical problems of supplying this landlocked African country.
An estimated one-third of Chad's 4.6 million people need assistance as a result of the country's longest and most severe drought.
``The situation is proportionately worse than in Ethiopia, especially as the lack of transport infrastructure makes food-aid distribution almost impossible,'' says Korom Ahmed, Chad's secretary of state for foreign affairs.
Chad, the world's poorest country, with an annual per-capita income of only $80, lacks the resources to distribute food aid itself. Twenty years of civil war have ruined the country's roads and limited transport system. There have never been more than 120 miles of paved road in this country, which is twice the size of Texas.
One food-aid convoy of 12 trucks recently took 11 days to travel 130 miles from Ab'ech'e south to Goz-beida. Vehicle repairs took one week and cost $10,000.
Chad is estimated to need 330,000 tons of food aid this year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Yet because of projected difficulties in transporting and distributing supplies, the Chadian government has requested only 185,000 tons of food. Commercial imports will account for another 50,000 tons, but will not make up the difference. According to the FAO, 85,000 tons of food had been delivered by the end of March.
``It's not good enough merely to pledge food aid. We need trucks and funds to improve the roads so that the food reaches the people who need it,'' says Mahamat Muktar, director of the Ministry of Natural Disasters.
Many aid donors provide half the cost for transporting supplies within the country. However, the Chadian government has no funds to make up the difference, and most of its trucks were destroyed during the civil war.
``The situation is likely to get worse in the next few months and a lot of people could starve unless supplies improve,'' says Fred Sandoz, logistics manager for the World Food Program here.
Distribution delays are mainly caused by difficulties in getting food to the capital of N'Djamena, Sandoz says.
The nearest port is Douala in Cameroon, a 1,250-mile journey to the southeast. The trip from the port can often take a month. The Nigerian port of Apapa, near Lagos, is farther away, yet the journey can be much quicker because the port and the roads are better.
But the Nigerian route is also much less reliable. Chadian-Nigerian relations have been strained for several years. A route between the two countries was only recently reopened after being closed for most of last year.
One of the major bottlenecks in supplying food aid to N'Djamena was recently eased with the construction of a temporary crossing over the Logone River between Cameroon and Chad.
Normally goods are ferried across the river Chari from the Cameroonian town of Kouss'eri. But the drought caused the river to fall so low last December, it seemed the ferries would soon be unable to operate.
A 50-foot iron bridge, supported on earthen causeways, now spans the river a little upstream from Kouss'eri. Flood waters will probably wash away the causeways in July, but by then a more permanent 700-foot steel bridge should be completed.
Amazingly, no bridge existed before. Strained relations with Cameroon, security fears linked with Chad's civil war, and the commercial interests of the people of Kouss'eri impeded any physical link, observers say.
But relations have improved since Paul Biya because President of Cameroon in 1982, and Chad is enjoying growing stability under President Hissein Habr'e. And the new steel bridge will increase the chances of survival for many tens of thousands of Chadians.
``The bridge is so much quicker,'' says Fernand Scheller, deputy head of the UN Development Program in N'Djamena.
``It used to take an hour to ferry a single truck across the river, and sometimes they had to wait days before crossing.''