DISCOURAGED by prospects for peace in Sudan, Western relief agencies are beginning to plan for another year of emergency food relief in the war-wracked southern part of the country. The first direct peace talks between Sudan's new military rulers and its rebel foes collapsed Monday, dashing hopes of an end to one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars.
But even if the war were to end soon, Sudanese and some Western relief officials caution that emergency food shortages could continue for years unless donors provide more help to enable farmers to again produce crops.
``We might as well bite the bullet and say we have to do it again - provide food relief next year, and do it better, and earlier,'' says one Western relief official in Nairobi.
The US government, a major donor, is preparing to place orders for food relief shipments for southern Sudan for use in 1990. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) is also looking ahead to next year.
``If there is no change in the political situation, we assume we would need about the same amount of food as this year,'' says Rolf Huss, WFP coordinator for Operation Lifeline, a United Nations-sponsored emergency-relief program for southern Sudan.
But Samir Sobhy, emergency coordinator at the New York headquarters of UNICEF, which is heading Operation Lifeline, says UNICEF has ``nothing concrete'' in terms of relief plans for Southern Sudan in 1990. The food situation at present is ``excellent'' in the region, he said, contrary to a number of other assessments by Western relief officials outside UNICEF. There are problems ``here and there, but nothing compared to last year,'' he says.
Last year's famine in southern Sudan was almost entirely war-related. Large numbers of people who fled violence in their villages starved in or on their way to Sudanese government-held towns, where little food relief arrived due to the fighting.
But weather can also be a problem. If a full drought develops in areas where rains already are quite late, there is a risk of a ``big'' famine in the South, says a veteran Western relief official in Khartoum. In other parts of the South, floods have destroyed three-fourths of the crops, says Caleb Kahuthia of the Nairobi office of Church World Service (CWS).
Food shortages are ``critical'' near the Ugandan border, he says. Farmers were unable to plant due to fighting earlier this year in the region.
Some relief officials, including Mr. Kahuthia, question whether as much food relief was delivered to southern Sudan during Operation Lifeline as reported by UNICEF.
In recent weeks, several thousand Sudanese have fled to the town of Abyei, seeking food, in anticipation of a dry spell turning into a prolonged drought, according to Western relief officials in Khartoum. Even though Abyei is one of the towns where emergency food relief had been stockpiled this year, rations to the displaced are being cut to less than half because of inadequate supplies.
``The situation is now under control'' in the four small towns where the International Committee of the Red Cross has flown in food, says an ICRC official in Nairobi.
``Nobody is dying; there's no movement migration of people. But everything can change very rapidly,'' the official says.
Meanwhile, increased armed tribal conflicts in Western Sudan may force many people to flee their homes and seek food, says John Prendergast, co-coordinator of the Coalition for Peace in the Horn of Africa, a Washington-based lobbying group.
Mr. Prendergast - like a number of Sudanese civilians and diplomats in Khartoum, and Western relief officials in Nairobi - is pessimistic about a quick end to Sudan's six-year civil war.
``The government and SPLA [rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army] are so far apart, we're going to see a resumption of an active civil war after the rainy season which ends in October in the South, Prendergast says.
Several Nairobi-based Western church groups and some Sudanese relief organizations are mapping out plans to solicit international funding to help rebuild schools and health clinics - and to get seeds and tools for farmers in selected areas in SPLA territory.
``We're supporting any coordinated effort to reach people behind the lines'' with such assistance, says Ginni Cook, regional CWS representative in Nairobi.
The Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (SRRA), a Sudanese-run program operating only in SPLA territory, has asked international donors to devote a greater share of their funding for Southern Sudan to development instead of to relief. But the response has been minimal, says Dukku James, head of the SRRA office in Nairobi.
Without more rehabilitation or development assistance now, southerners will be ``reduced to a state of dependency,'' he says.