Update on: The African famine

The biggest impact now: Sudan, Ethiopia, Chad, Mali, and Niger. Until a hoped-for harvest in October-November, almost half of Sudan's people face three ``desperate'' months, say United Nations, United States, and private agency officials in Europe. If rains in the south don't reach the north, there won't be a proper harvest at all.

The most urgent problem: logistics -- symbolized by congestion in Port Sudan, inefficient railroads to move grain from the port south and west to starving Darfur Province, airlifts, and truck convoys too small, too expensive.

The big story today: The vital 550-mile Kosti-Nyala railroad in the starving west of Sudan is carrying so much commercial freight that food aid isn't getting through.

Officials of the US Agency for International Development and Save the Children (Britain) are frustrated. The railroad has been averaging only 100 tons a week.

In one recent week it moved only 35 tons. ``To give each needy person one pound of grain a day we need to get in 1,136 tons a day,'' says Save the Children's Hugh Mackay.

What's being done: Save the Children truck convoys moving 750 tons every 10 days (far short of what's needed). Britain sending in a railroad expert. The European Community promising money. UN officials appealing for trucks, locomotives, railroad wagons, track repairs.

Africa-wide, the word for donors so far: generous. The 21 worst-affected countries, says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, need 7 million tons of food aid in the 1984-85 crop year. Pledges so far: 6.7 million tons.

Some good news: Drought has broken in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Lesotho in the south, where harvests are already in or almost in. Kenya: a decent harvest. Zimbabwe: surplus of one million tons. Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi: better harvests this year.

FAO's worst-hit list: Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, plus all of the Sahel (an area of north central Africa affected by periodic drought).

Sudan: (pop. 20 million) 250,000 tons of urgently-needed emergency grain backlogged in and around Port Sudan. Required this year: 1.4 million tons. Arrived: 800,000 tons. Actually distributed to the hungry: only 300,000 tons. To be distributed within the next three months: 1.1 million. UN officials' comment: ``Prospects are bleak.''

Ethiopia: (pop. 35 million) Stuck in Assab, Massawa, and Djibouti is a massive 200,000 tons (enough to feed 13 million people for a month at minimum rations). Total emergency food needed this year: 1.5 million tons. Pledged: 1.1 million tons.

Received so far: 740,000 tons. Distributed: less than half of that. More than 1 million tons needs to be distributed before the October-November harvest. It can't all be done.

Chad: (pop. 5 million) World's poorest country, says World Bank. Two-thirds desert. Half its people are short of food. Needed this year: 280,000 tons. Arrived so far: 150,000 tons. Needed to distribute by end of year: 130,000 tons. All food must come through Cameroon's port of Douala, then by rail and road, because Nigeria has closed Lagos and Apapa to Chad, claiming congestion. Situation: extremely difficult.

Mali: (pop. 7.8 million) Half of the population is hungry or starving in the desert. Food aid required: 375,000 tons. Received: about half. Distributed: much less.

Niger: (pop. 6 million) 42 percent of the population is starving. Needed: 395,000 tons. Received: less than half. This column, keeping readers abreast of the famine and relief efforts, will appear most Fridays.

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