MANY parts of Africa are on the edge of environmental bankruptcy. Earth, water, trees -- the building blocks in the continent's ability to grow its own food -- are under tremendous pressure from climate and record rates of population and livestock growth. The continent needs a new blueprint for survival. It can be found, but both African and rich-nation governments must change direction. And progress for drought-stricken Africa needs to be less high-tech and more gradual than in China, India, and Latin America, which are better watered and more literate.
These are the major findings in a new Monitor series starting today. They emerge from travel and research in Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Chad, Nigeria, London, Geneva, Rome, and Washington over the last six months.
No one minimizes the crisis Africa faces in finding a blueprint of long-term solutions.
``Where have you brought us?'' demanded a puzzled Nairobi-based Kenyan official after touching down near the Somali border in a UN plane. ``Kenya is green, not like this. . . .''
But ``this'' was the Kenya usually unseen amid the zebras, lions, and pineapples of the tourist brochures: the bleak aridity of the Kenyan north, which already covers one-quarter of the country and is spreading so fast that some veteran UN officials even see ``another Ethiopia'' there by 1995.
Here in war-scarred, drought-hit N'Djamena, UN official Jamie Wickens shakes his head concerning Lake Chad, a huge and shimmering expanse 15 years ago. ``Now it has shrunk by 80 percent,'' he said. The northwest part is utterly dry, the lake bed a cracked minidesert. Near the town of Bol, the shoreline has receded 15 miles.
Two years ago the Chari River flowed 600 yards wide at the back gate of the Tchadienne Hotel in N'Djamena. This summer it was a long walk from the gate to the 90-yard-wide stream remaining. When I got there, the current was barely moving. UN officials fear it might stop altogether.
To climb for two hours from a remote plain to the even remoter village of Rabel, perched in the northern highlands of Ethiopia, is to experience both scenic grandeur and human tragedy. Magnificent Grand Canyon-like vistas march to the horizon, while villagers waylaid me on the narrow path to beg for food and medicine. It hadn't rained there for years.
Sudan is running out of water for lack of money to drill new wells. Half of the Sahel region's 35 million people are trapped between the Sahara and the rain belt -- their crops withered, their livestock dead. Emergency aid -- a two-edged sword
Africa has failed to keep pace with Asia and Latin America in producing food. Asia has recovered from crises of two decades ago. India, the main worry of the early 1960s, is even exporting grain today. China is moving ahead.
``What we are witnessing in Africa is the greatest eco-catastrophe in recorded history -- the greatest example of what happens when the balance between environment and development breaks down,'' says Maurice Strong, former head of the UN Environment Program and now deputy head of the UN emergency office on Africa.
Mr. Strong and others are in the thick of a new Western aid debate about Africa. The climate of opinion seems slowly to be shifting. Emergency aid, while necessary, is seen more and more as a two-edged sword, necessary now but stifling initiative over the long haul.
A new long-term blueprint must bring into clear focus, not African cities that preoccupy African leaders, Western donors and, Soviet officials, but earth, rivers, trees, and animals. It must focus on the African environment of the small, individual farmer and his or her family, in whose hands lies the continent's future ability to feed itself. The new blueprint will contain much less high-tech fertilizer, irrigation, and machinery, and much more careful, step-by-step, low-key, low-cost improvements in local African methods.
Among scientists the future by no means seems all bleak.
``The food-production takeoff point for the US was around 1948, for Europe a few years later, for Asia about 1975, says John Pendleton, a thoughtful scientist from Tennessee. ``For Africa,'' he says, ``it could be 1985.'' Dr. Pendleton leads research at the widely known International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria.
African food-production increases will be slower, however, he said in an interview. Instead of doubling and tripling, as in other countries, Africa's output might rise 50 percent by the year 2000. Asia followed the earlier United States and European successes with its own ``green revolution,'' using ``miracle'' wheat and rice developed in Mexico and the Philippines.
``Now,'' Pendleton observes, ``as output in all three areas is leveling off, Africa's is ready to rise -- slowly.''
One lesson of past, failed blueprints is that suddenly introducing high-tech, high-cost ideas to Africa simply doesn't work. The continent isn't ready for them. It cannot afford them.
The new blueprint sees an African environment not suffering from drought alone, but from decades of both African and rich-country errors, mismanagement, corruption, undue emphasis on cash crops for export, and badly placed foreign aid.
Half of Africa is too dry to depend only on rain. People and animal herds are growing so unprecedentedly fast that ``slash and burn'' farming methods, which have been in practice for a thousand years, are being overwhelmed. Land can no longer be left for 20 years to recover from intensive use. But as Africa turns to continuous cultivation more and more of the nutrients are being leached from the land. When drought comes, there is no margin of survival. Needs are political, educational, social
Africa produces 20 percent less food per capita now than two decades ago.
The urgent need appears on the surface to be environmental: the need for rain. The actual needs are political, educational, and social: the need for new ideas and the willingness to try them. Any new blueprint includes persuading African governments to see the need to make change possible, and former colonial powers to look for ways to boost the production of food people eat as well as the crops they sell and export. The exports are needed. The food to eat at home is crucial.
Many African governments ``still put other loyalties ahead of the state, other commitments ahead of the future -- family, tribe, the desire for power and money,'' one Western aid veteran says in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the former Upper Volta.
The fear and anger of civil war are a plague on Africa. In Ethiopia, Chad, Sudan, Angola, and Mozambique, conflicts cut railroad lines, frighten farmers away, block emergency-aid deliveries, and divert resources.
It is thinking that has to change, to keep pace with what the scientists are already achieving. Ideas have to pierce the inertia of tradition and the prejudice of urban, military rulers who rule by force and keep food prices low to satisfy volatile, teeming city slums.
The new blueprint sees emergency famine aid as necessary but temporary. Such aid has dragged on for a decade or more in many areas. A number of African countries have become international beggars. Without positive long-term answers, emergency aid can breed dependence, stifle initiative, and lower market prices for grain.
Africa can feed itself and preserve its environment -- if the drought of ideas is broken. Blueprint at a glance
Any new blueprint for African survival must contain as a central element lowering population-growth rates. Unless this is done, population will keep on doubling every 17 to 20 years, and the best ideas to keep food and economies growing will be overwhelmed [see story on next page]. It has to be said that so far, family planning efforts, with some exceptions, have been ineffective.
In addition, the blueprint calls for switching aid money away from concrete show-projects (huge dams, urban roads, and buildings) to the following items reported on later in this series:
Intensified research into new drought-resistant types of the foods that most Africans actually eat (yams, cassava, sorghum, millet, and cowpeas, known as black-eyed peas in the United States).
Finding new water supplies underground and new ways of conserving water above ground: terracing, using mini-catchments, and more.
Finding new methods of farming that enrich the soil rather than exhaust it: (1) using so-called ``no till'' methods to leave as much topsoil as possible undisturbed; (2) mixing in the same plots with maize (corn), cassava, and other crops lines of fast-growing nitrogen-fixing plants whose leaves enrich the soil when they fall (so-called alley cropping); (3) putting into practice seemingly small but far-reaching innovations such as using plastic sheets to cut down weeding and retain moisture; (4) using
new stoves to burn firewood more efficiently. Saving trees means halting erosion.
Showing people how many animals the land can support, and how to plant and to protect the right kind of trees and plants to stop the Sahara from spreading.
Working out new balances between livestock and wild animals that compete for the same food and water. Limitations of the land: Africa -- the vast bulk of basement rock standing between Europe and Asia. Called by noted British geographer Ieuan Griffiths the ``barrier'' continent. Environmental differences with the Americas and Asia: Its 19,000-mile coastline lacks natural harbors. Lack of a wide continental shelf limits fishing and offshore oil development. One-third is desert, and one-third drained by five great rivers (the Nile, Zaire, Niger, Zambeze, and Orange), none of which is navigable inland from the sea more than 750 miles (the Nile from the Mediterranean to Aswan). Tribes remained remote. The wheel came only with white settlers. Explorers came relatively late. Soils, apart from those in alluvial river basins, are generally poor, easily erodable on open plateaus, leached by short, sharp rains, low in humus, often based on iron-oxide hardpan. Fast population growth means deforestation and erosion. Rainfall is low in the Sahel -- an eight-nation region running from Chad to the western edge of the continent and including the Cape Verde Islands. Less than 24 inches falls annually, usually in one season if at all. Droughts have come every 30 years in the Sahel since 1913; the 1973 drought never really ended. Surface water is in short supply inland. Poorly situated new wells in the Sahel lead to destruction of surrounding vegetation as the livestock attracted to the wells tramples it underfoot. Poverty: The total gross national product of all 53 African countries is equal to about one-eighth of the US GNP. Per capita, the figure is one-sixteenth. GRAPH: Per capita food production 1961-65 to 1983 (1961-65 average equals 100) Source: US Department of Agriculture data Per capita grain production In 24 African nations affected by drought In pounds Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The 1984 figure is a projection from the FAO, the US Agency for International Development, and the US Department of Agriculture. Latin America Asia Sub-Saharan Africa