Local transport conditions slow Western food aid to Africa. More grain is likely to pile up in ports when rainy season turns roads to mud

United Nations and other Western aid officials are racing against time to unclog a number of African ports, find new seeds for the next planting season, and drum up more relief grain. The African drought-and-famine crisis is actually worsening in six Sahel countries, and in Ethiopia and Sudan, officials say, although some East African countries such as Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Zambia have shown marked improvement after recent rains.

Large amounts of relief grain have built up not only in the Ethiopian port of Assab, but also in Dakar, Senegal; Lagos, Nigeria; Abidjan, Ivory Coast; and Douala, Cameroon.

A classic African problem is spotlighted anew: Donors are giving grain and the ships filled with it are arriving, but port handling, and trucks to carry the grain to the feeding camps, are inadequate or in short supply.

``Right now,'' says a veteran UN official with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, ``speeding deliveries of grain is our most urgent priority before the rains are due to begin in June in the Sahel and in Ethiopia and the Sudan.''

Unless large amounts of food can be shifted from ports to feeding camps and villages within weeks, deliveries will bog down, officials say. Even small amounts of rain turn roads to mud and disrupt rail lines.

At stake could be countless lives, mainly those of women, small children, and the elderly. Ten million are thought to be hungry in Ethiopia alone, where the port of Assab remains clogged despite government promises of more trucks.

In Lagos, the top UN aid coordinator, Bradford Morse, was to meet April 19 with Nigeria's President Buhari to ask that the port of Lagos be opened to grain shipments destined for Chad, where about 1 million people -- almost one in five of the country's population -- face deepening famine.

In the port of Douala, in Cameroon, officials from the UN World Food Program in Rome (which coordinates donor shipments) are urgently trying to lift monthly shipments to N'Djamena in Chad from 13,000 to 36,000 tons. It has been taking four weeks for grain to reach N'Djamena from Douala.

Because Dakar and Abidjan are also congested, UN officials say, vitally needed grain supplies to Mali are being delayed.

``In all, we estimate that less than half the food aid pledged to Africa by donor countries has actually been delivered,'' says a senior FAO official.

According to the FAO's monthly food outlook report for April, just released, total pledges so far are still 1.2 million tons short of meeting estimated requirements of 6.9 million tons for 1984-85.

The Monitor reported (April 3) that 56,000 tons of food, enough to feed 3.4 million Africans for one month, was stacked up in Assab, while the Ethiopian government concentrated on resettling northerners to more fertile southern areas. Another 24,000 tons of other aid was on the dock. Now a senior official of the World Food Program in Rome says the total aid waiting in Assab has risen from 80,000 to 90,000 tons because new shipments have arrived. Meanwhile, the daily unloading rate, has risen slightly after a drastic drop.

In Sudan, the main port was closed for three days after the recent coup which deposed President Jaafar Nimeiry. It is now open again.

``We're talking about huge amounts of grain,'' said the FAO official. The 1.2 million ton food gap for all of Africa is enough food, based on a subsistence level of 400 grams a day, to feed 8 million Africans for a year.

Meanwhile, seeds are urgently needed in Ethiopia, Sudan, and the Sahel for planting in the next few weeks. In many areas seed stocks have long since been eaten. chart: African wheat production: far behind Asian.

1982 Africa: 10.4 million tons

1983 Africa: 8.9 `` ``

1984 Africa: 9.3 '' ''

1982 Asia: 150.8 '' ''

1983 Asia 170.2 '' ''

1984 Asia: 176.4 '' ''

1983 figures are preliminary estimates

1984 figures are estimates

source: Food Outlook, 1985 (Food and Agricultural Organization, Rome)

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