Update/The Africa famine

Step back and take a broad Africa-wide view. Surprise: there's a faint glimmer of optimism visible this week. ``Make that cautious optimism,'' warns a veteran United States aid official. ``It's early yet.''

The outlook for the eight-country Sahel region, and for the Horn of Africa, still desperate. Rains good but lack of seeds means harvests will be small. Too late now for backlogged grain in ports to reach all the people who need it.

Much aid needed next year.

Good rains in the center and south of Africa now begin to make next year for whole continent look somewhat better.

The US view is that the 1985-86 food-growing season could even be a breathing spell for much of Africa below Sahara.

Southern Africa: Harvests already in. From Tanzania southward, better rain boosted yields almost everywhere.

Mozambique: Harvest up on last year despite civil war and bad weather in some areas. Latest United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates: food aid needed for 1985-86, 400,000 tons of grain, down from 500,000 tons the previous year. Received last year: 380,000 tons. There's a paradox: even though the harvest is up, at least same amount of food relief will be needed in next 12 months.

Angola: The one exception in the south. Situation worse than last year because of civil war, dry mid-season spell. FAO says food aid needed for 1985-86 will be 120,000 tons, up from 80,000 tons in 1984-85. Also, donors must raise aid by 70 percent. Last year, of 80,000 tons pledged, only 70,000 tons arrived.

Botswana: Holding steady. Needs same food aid as last year: 50,000 tons. Harvest better but still 50 percent down on normal year. FAMINEFAMINE

Zambia: Big harvest of 1.1 million tons. Won't need much emergency aid.

Lesotho: Harvest up from 140,000 tons last year to 192,000.

Zimbabwe: Bumper harvest: 2.95 million tons, versus 1.8 million last year. FAO says there's an exportable surplus of more than 1 million tons. US officials say that after 900,000 tons go into grain reserves, 250,000 to 500,000 tons can be exported. Both estimates look good.

Malawi: There was a grain surplus even in last year's drought. Same this year.

Swaziland: Back to normal crops this year.

Zambia: Harvest good, but dire shortage of jute bags to put it in. US providing $2.5 million for bags from Bangladesh. A senior US aid man in Washington says, ``Better southern conditions mean less total food aid needed for Africa as whole next year and that we can all concentrate harder on the Horn and Sahel.''

Just north in landlocked Rwanda and Burundi a normal harvest.

Kenya: Harvest good.

Uganda: Ditto.

Farther northward the picture is mixed: rain but harsh conditions reaching into next year.

Ethiopia: US thinks grain aid requirement might drop from 1.4 million tons this year to 900,000 tons or less next year, but Eritrea and Tigre still very grim. The international airlift will continue.

Sudan: The worst of the worst. Grain simply not reaching 1.2 million to 1.3 million people in Darfur province. Rain washing out roads, rail tracks. Vital 900-mile Kosti-Nyala railroad closed all last week. ``The railroad has had it,'' says a UK private agency official sadly. UN efforts to upgrade northern route (Omdurman-El Fasher) pressing ahead but heavy rains interfering.

Chad: Big new bridge over Logone River for life-saving grain via Cameroon ready ahead of schedule, but southern route from Cameroon blocked by rising Mayo Kebi River.

Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso: UN delivering 124 tarpaulin, steel-framed storage silos (minimum capacity: 500 tons) from West Germany, Norway to keep off sun, rain.

Ports of Assab, Djibouti, Port Sudan: Mountains of stored grain awaiting delivery still high.

Africa-wide: Much improved rainfall. Eighty percent of all US grain aid already in African ports. But Horn, Sahel bad. Longer-term answers urgently needed. This column, keeping readers abreast of the famine and relief efforts, will appear most Fridays

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