Superpowers Must Team to Save the Horn of Africa

IN these pages one year ago (April 17, 1989) I proposed a joint US-Soviet humanitarian initiative, to begin to deal with the underlying environmental and population problems that are pushing the Horn of Africa toward unimaginable disaster. You think it can't get worse? Over the last 12 months, it already has. Only now - just now - there is a glimmer of hope. The region comprises four countries (Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia) and the northernmost sections of Kenya, with a total population of 80-85 million. It is desperately poor, even by African standards. Per capita incomes in this area average less than $300 per year. Over two decades, internal conflicts (in Ethiopia and Sudan) and an international war (between Ethiopia and Somalia) have created 2.3 million refugees and many hundreds of thousands more internally displaced persons.

Over the past year, the level of fighting in Ethiopia and Sudan has risen, increasing the flow of refugees and impeding the movement of relief supplies as government and rebel soldiers try to deny food to areas they do not control. Environmental deterioration has accelerated as huge artificial communities of refugees have overgrazed and stripped surrounding areas of wood.

Worst of all, in the winter-spring of 1989-90, drought is back. What distinguishes the current situation from the cataclysms of 1973-74 and 1983-85, however, is the scope of the need. As this is written, the food systems for tens of millions of people in these five countries have been destroyed or are currently threatened. In scale, nothing like it has happened since the Bengali famine during World War II.

Now for the good news. The past year has also brought a development that may point the way out of this mess: a dramatic improvement in the relations between the US and the Soviet Union. For it is the superpowers who, along with Europe, can mobilize the resources to pull the Horn of Africa out of its downward spiral.

For years, Ronald Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev provided the arms and advisers that fueled the conflicts in the Horn, but their successors have already begun to withdraw that deadly support. Late last month Mikhail Gorbachev, responding to a suggestion made by two members of the House Select Committee on Hunger, agreed to talks with Washington aimed at facilitating emergency food aid to the 5 million people cut off from assistance by fighting in Ethiopia's northern province of Eritrea.

The details of a joint US-Soviet aid plan are being finalized, and pressure is being brought to bear upon the Ethiopian government and the Eritrean rebels to allow the assistance.

But it will not be enough. Similar conflict-and-drought situations are causing famine in southern and central Sudan, and in the desert regions between Ethiopia and Somalia.

But mere food aid will not address environmental deterioration and soaring population growth. These are underlying reasons why the carrying capacity of the land is no longer adequate to feed fully half of the 80-85 million people in the region. What is needed is a massive US-European-Soviet-funded program of reforestation, resettlement, irrigation, well-drilling, construction of secondary roads, grain storage, and satellite rainfall monitoring, combined with a comprehensive family-planning effort.

These program elements must be planned and funded quickly, because we do not have time for a step-by-step approach. They must be implemented on a regional basis, because a majority of the famine-affected populations in these five countries are nomads, and they traditionally cross national borders with their grazing herds of livestock. If this crash effort is undertaken in Ethiopia but not in Somalia, for example, the result will be mass migration, and the communicable disease, overgrazing, and other problems that go with it.

What about the pinched foreign-aid budget? What about the new democracies of Latin America and Eastern Europe, and all those Russian immigrants in Israel who must be absorbed?

I haven't an answer for those questions. But I hope that when our elected representatives allocate precious foreign-aid dollars, they will take into consideration what is at stake in the Horn of Africa. Some years ago C.P. Snow was asked whether he feared a violent revolution of the hungry poor against the industrial nations. He responded that the real threat was something quite different: that we would watch them starve on color television.

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