In the race to get food to more than 5 million Ethiopians facing the threat of famine, delays caused by internal war and poor storage and transportation facilities are the greatest obstacles to be overcome. International relief officials identify the war as the No. 1 cause of food-delivery delays so far. Daily war-time operations and widespread economic devastation are draining resources from government relief efforts and keeping distribution from moving ahead more quickly.
On the logistical front, a few seaport improvements have been made since relief workers encountered a distribution nightmare during the 1984-85 famine. But it appears other improvements needed on roads, airstrips, and transport equipment are at a standstill.
Meanwhile, a new estimate by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that 25 percent more food than originally calculated will be needed to avert a major famine in 1988.
The World Food Program said late last week the current food donations were only enough to last three months - though serious food shortages are expected to last through much of 1988. The most recent estimate is that the country needs about 1.3 million tons of food to keep people from starving.
Overall, relief efforts are supported by a ``much stronger logistical infrastructure'' this time than during the l984-85 emergency, says Michael Priestley, in charge of UN relief in Ethiopia. But the new figures have relief officials worried about their ability to provide the food quickly enough to the people in need.
``If they [the new FAO estimates] prove true, the existing logistical capacity won't be able to meet it [distribution demand],'' says David Morton, representative of the UN's World Food Program in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. The test now, say relief officials here, is whether that infrastructure can be expanded quickly. More truck drivers, mechanics, spare parts, and perhaps trucks - as many as 200 - may be needed, says Mr. Morton.
Since the last famine, a new 50,000-ton warehouse at Assab, built partially with Italian government aid, has enlarged port capacity for handling food. And port management has been improved, says a UN relief official. But even this new capacity will be strained when incoming food arrives simultaneously with some 200,000 tons of fertilizers for l988 crops, expected early this year.
The Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission is seeking Ethiopian government funding of improvements of the airstrip at the port city of Mitsiwa. This would allow relief planes to fly directly from Mitsiwa to Makale, instead of having to truck the supplies over bad roads to the airstrip at Asmara. Some work has been done, but the project is not completed, says Morton.
The government is also seeking international aid to straighten out some bad curves in mountainous roads all along the food-relief routes, but so far there is no movement on this front.
But the war remains the most difficult challenge. ``If people die this time, it's not going to be because of the drought,'' says one international relief official in Addis Ababa. ``It's going to be because of the military and political situation.''
War between Ethiopia's Soviet-backed government and two Marxist-dominated rebel groups in the north is draining resources such as government trucks, personnel, and funding, from relief efforts. Fighting often blocks key roads, sometimes delaying urgently needed food for days. Government operations to clear roads of guerrilla-laid mines each day slow deliveries.
Foreign analysts in Addis Ababa say the rebels control large parts of rural Eritrea and Tigre, while the government holds the main towns. The government does not allow relief to go to rebel-held areas.
Thus, most of Eritrea and much of Tigre - the regions hardest hit by drought - depend on relief brought in from Sudan by rebel-operated relief groups. These operations receive little funding. And it is estimated that as many as 1 million Eritreans live in areas virtually unreachable without vastly expanded relief efforts.
According to some relief officials and diplomats interviewed in Ethiopia, there has been an intensification of the wars in the north in recent months.
``There's no room for relief and heavy military operations,'' says an international relief official in Addis Ababa. There are two key roads for taking supplies from Asmara, capital of Eritrea, to Makale, capital of Tigre. The rebels have staged attacks on at least three relief convoys traveling one of these roads.
The rebels claim that the convoys were carrying military supplies along with relief materials. The UN and Catholic Relief Services, joint backers of the first convoy attacked, deny that there were any military supplies on it. The second attack was on a commercial convoy escorted by government troops, a general practice in Ethiopia. Details of a third convoy attack are unclear.
To lessen war-related delays, relief officials are asking the Ethiopian government to move to clear roads of guerrilla mines and dedicate more military personnel to keeping food delivery roads open. They have organized an airlift - the most expensive relief measure - to supplement truck deliveries between Asmara and Makale. And they are asking for an ``open roads'' policy, where both sides would allow convoys carrying only food to travel unhindered.
``We're not asking that the war stop,'' says Nicholas Winer, representative for Oxfam, a British relief organization. ``What we want is for the war not to create a situation where people starve.''
Relief officials point out, however, that the more than 25 years of internal strife are a main reason Ethiopia experiences recurring famine conditions.