UPDATE/The African Famine

Rain in much of parched Africa: Hooray? Yes, but don't cheer too loudly. The news is both good and bad. Good for farmers: Rain is causing a rush to plant seeds (if they have any) in northern Ethiopia, western Sudan, and in a belt across the central Sahel.

Bad for millions of Africans: Near-destitute, arid areas of northern Africa are about to be cut off from trucks bringing relief grain.

Trucks run on sandy, unpaved tracks. All-weather roads are few and far between. Downpours turn roads into quagmires.

International aid officials worry desperately that too little grain is being delivered before the quagmires come when movement of supplies will grind to a halt.

No aid hats are being tossed in the air yet.

Case in point: The United States Embassy in Khartoum says rain washed out vital railroad tracks between Kosti and Nyala in the west of Sudan.

One train derailed, two locomotives put out of commission.

A Dutch repair team working close by raced to the scene: Entire line, on whose grain loads three million people depend, shut down for five days. Was to reopen July 12-13.

``Definitely better rain than last year,'' United Nations officials say. But harvest is a long way off: October-November. If rains stop now, seeds won't germinate. Sprouts will wither. The needed revival of the food production process will be back at the starting line.

``Don't even talk about the drought being `broken,' '' advises one aid expert. ``We say that only after a good harvest appears.

``Yes, the drought has broken in Zimbabwe, and Tanzania, and elsewhere in the south. But up north? Too soon to say.''

The major famine challenge now: Food is getting to the ports, but not moving nearly fast enough from ports to people.

Ports: congested. Trucks: too few. Railroad cars: worn out. Locomotives: many won't go. Red tape: dense. Tires and crankshafts: take months to arrive. Diesel fuel: scarce, expensive.

Politics: landlocked states (such as Chad) can't use nearest ports in ocean-front neighbors (Nigeria). Civil war blocks railroads (Angola, Mozambique).

Donors simply aren't providing enough trucks. UN expecting 50 trucks and trailers for Sudan by end of July. Asking for 30 for Mali. Need hundreds more. Trucks without spare parts, fuel, and mechanics are useless. It's expensive.

One last-ditch European Community answer in hard-hit western Sudan: an airlift by five Air Force transports, two Belgian, two British, one West German. Have flown 1,870 tons westward from Omdurman since early June.

The US is on verge of joining in, contributing four or five chartered TransAmerica L-100 transports. US aim: 200-250 tons of grain per day.

How to use new relief aid: If organizers of the televised ``Live Aid'' rock concert in London and Philadelphia July 13 want to know how to spend the $25 to $50 million they hope to raise, answers are:

Hundreds more trucks: 6-, 10-, and 22-ton Fiats, Mercedes, Volvos, Leylands.

Don't try for Detroit trucks, aid experts warn: Africa's colonial history gears it toward European models.

Fuel: for trucks and for airlift planes.

``Tell the rock stars from me,'' says one UN official in Rome, ``that fuel is the best thing they can give because the railroad, even when open, simply is not delivering enough relief grain. Minimum target: 1,200 tons a day. Moved just before railroad closed: 900 tons a day.

The Monitor's weekly famine overview:

Sudan: Still the most urgent case. How to deliver grain to the west before roads are impassable? Rain reported in the center as well as the south. Seeds planted. Distribution terribly slow.

Grain required this year: 1.4 million tons. Total arrived at Port Sudan by end of June: about 700,000 tons. Distributed: substantially less than that. Ships now wait 12 days at anchor before berthing in Port Sudan.

Ethiopia: Rains in north pulling Eritrean, Tigrayan refugees back from Sudan to plant crops. Promising rains in center and south. Concern that annual ``short rains'' started late and merged into annual ``long rain.'' Germination period in ground might be too short: too early to tell.

Chad: Rains good enough in south to allow early development of crops. Planting completed in center: plants emerging from ground. Some rain in July in the north. Far north: still dry. Half of Chad's 5 million people still hungry. Rain-ravaged roads big obstacle.

Mali: In south, rains should have fallen in mid-June. Delayed until early July. Now widespread. Planting under way.

Burkina Faso: Similar picture to Mali. US aid officials particularly worried by prospect of rained-out roads northwest of Ouagadougou, one of most densely-populated areas in all Africa. This column, keeping readers abreast of the famine and relief efforts, will appear most Fridays

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