A LARGE-SCALE relief effort has swung into gear to avert disaster in southern Africa, where severe drought is raising the prospect of famine and could threaten hard-won political reforms.
Officials say the region could lose more than 60 percent of its vital corn crop. Zimbabwe and South Africa, normally exporters of surplus grain to their neighbors, have been the hardest hit.
"This is the worst drought in the southern African region in 80 years," says Leslie "Cap" Dean of the United States Agency for International Development (AID).
Beyond potential human tragedy, diplomats fear the drought's severity could disrupt fragile economic and political reforms in countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
Paradoxically, this added threat has opened the possibility for tighter regional coordination. The drought relief push will see 9 million tons of corn imported by 11 countries in the region.
Zambian Foreign Minister Vernon Mwaanga, who was on a five-day visit to South Africa, said after a meeting Thursday with South African Foreign Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha that a regional approach was vital.
"We must be seen to respond together as a region," Mr. Mwaanga said, adding that Mr. Botha had welcomed the idea of a regional effort.
Mr. Dean and other relief officials say drought relief could forge important new links between South Africa and its black-ruled neighbors, boosting regional cooperation in transportation and food distribution.
"Once you have got this kind of thing going you have a framework in place which you can use the second time around," said Johan van Zyl, senior economist at the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA).
Mwaanga said that "the whole transport system of the region will have to be rationalized" to distribute an estimated 10 to 12 million tons of grain effectively.
Zimbabwe and South Africa alone will have to import an estimated 6 million tons of corn from the US, Canada, and the European Community (EC). The South African Department of Agriculture disclosed Thursday that the national corn crop would be 2.1 million tons, less than 30 percent of the average crop.
Western diplomats and aid officials fear that without such coordination the drought could derail economic restructuring programs - and destabilize the democratization process in Zambia and South Africa.
The timing of the drought was a tragedy for the region, particularly for Zambia, which is battling to consolidate its new democracy, says Scott Spangler, US AID's assistant administrator for Africa.
"Here we have [President Frederick] Chiluba, the new guy in Zambia, trying to do all the right things and - bang - he runs into a drought," he says, adding that droughts affect the poor more than they do the rich and cause tensions in societies.
Zambia and Zimbabwe are already reeling under the strain of rapidly increasing food prices and the effects of government cuts in social spending.
"We are looking at an almost unmanageable situation," Zimbabwean analyst Eddie Cross told The Star of Johannesburg recently. "It is a major disaster."
The affected countries - with the exception of South Africa and Malawi - are all members of the 10-nation economic union, the Southern African Development Coordinating Conference (SADCC), which was founded 12 years ago to coordinate development and reduce economic dependence on South Africa.
Now the so-called frontline states are looking forward to a democratic South Africa joining their ranks. The informal grouping moved closer to forming a regional economic bloc at SADCC's annual consultative conference in Maputo, Mozambique, last month. The move is expected to be consummated at SADCC's next meeting in Windhoek, Namibia, in August - possibly with South Africa as the 11th member.
Without close coordination, aid officials worry that such large quantities of imported grain - last year the region imported a total of 1.9-million tons - could lead to congestion and even chaos.
"This, by itself, dictates a regional approach," says Mr. Dean, director of AID Africa Bureau's Office of Southern African Affairs. The regional rail system is dominated by lateral routes to the nearest port, but is weak on interregional routes.
"This is where South Africa can take the lead," says DBSA's van Zyl. "It will take a high degree of coordination to make things work at this level."
The African states are Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho, and Namibia. Imports for Mozambique, Angola, and Tanzania would be handled through their own ports, he said. Malawi's imports would go through Mozambique.
Mr. Loedorff estimated that between 7.5 million and 13 million tons of corn would be channeled through the South African ports of Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and East London.
"This is the biggest operation of its kind ever mounted in southern Africa," he said. "It will strengthen the good ties that already exist and stimulate further economic involvement between South Africa and the rest of the subcontinent."