As Africa famine threat recedes, Sudan remains major concern

Africa appears, for the time being, to have warded off two potential disasters: mass starvation in southern Sudan and crop destruction by insects elsewhere. Seasonal rains in hunger- and war-wracked southern Sudan have ushered in a brief season of plenty. But, relief workers warn, disastrous food shortages may occur again early next year.

For many southerners, the October-to-November harvest was the first this year, following widespread crop failure last July. The rains were followed by a temporary lull in the three-year war between troops of the Islamic government of Sadiq al-Mahdi in Khartoum and Christian rebels of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), based in the south.

As a result, relief agencies have been able to deliver large shipments of emergency food to southern towns controlled by government troops. The agencies estimate some 96,000 tons of food have been delivered to southern Sudan since January this year. But they doubt this even comes close to meeting the needs of southern Sudan's people.

A UN official in Khartoum rejects press reports that relief organizations have exaggerated the extent of the crisis in southern Sudan and created a ``myth of the starving millions.'' Earlier estimates that 2 million people risked starvation were based on patchy information from the countryside, the official acknowledges. But, he says, the UN knows of 200,000 people displaced by insecurity, drought, and pests, who are living on leaves, roots, and relief food.

The latest harvest, relief workers estimate, will be exhausted by March. Meanwhile government troops are believed to be readying a major offensive for the onset of the dry season in January.

Civil war, not drought, is seen as the major cause of hunger in southern Sudan. Thirty years of intermittent conflict have depleted resources, disrupted agriculture, and eroded social structures.

The rebels and the government accuse each other of using hunger as a weapon. When Khartoum opposed plans by ``Operation Rainbow'' organizers to airlift food to rebel as well as government-controlled areas, the SPLA threatened to shoot down aircraft flying in the south without its permission. UN coordinators called off the airlift, citing security concerns. Khartoum dismissed claims it could not guarantee the safety of the operation and expelled the UN's special envoy in October, claiming he had ``sabotaged'' the relief effort. Several aid critics say the operation's advance publicity virtually forced Khartoum to ban flights in order to save face.

Humanitarian groups believe the ``dumping'' of large stocks of food in towns may achieve the opposite effect from what the donors hope. Thousands of villagers abandoned their fields for free food in the towns; many returned too late to till the soil in time for harvest. They are becoming more dependent on aid, while agriculture is further disrupted.

Hundreds of miles from the embattled south, the granaries of central and eastern Sudan are full. The 1986 cereal crop is estimated at 3.5 million tons, compared to 1.5 million tons in 1984.

The widely feared locust and grasshopper plague that threatened to devastate crops throughout Africa has been thwarted by a $35 million international effort. Experts say the situation is under control in most areas, but spraying will have to continue until the end of 1986.

``We waged war on the farmer's oldest enemy and we won,'' says Edouard Saouma, director general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. But, he warns, southern Africa - particularly Botswana - remains a danger zone.

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