AT the Nansenga riverbed in Zambia, an 11-year-old boy squats with a small basin over a foot-wide puddle of dirty, stagnant water. This squalid pool is his village's only water source for cooking, bathing, and drinking. Without it, they will have to walk miles for water. In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, a two-month-old baby too weak to cry is hospitalized for malnutrition and dehydration.
They are victims of the worst drought to hit southern Africa in this century. The drought has destroyed anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of the crops, and threatens the lives of 30 million people. The situation in the most affected countries - Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe - raises the specter of the horrifying famine of the mid-'80s in Africa's Sahel region where hundreds of thousands of people died. The decimation that occurred th en could, and will, rear its ugly head again unless the world community takes quick action.
Several of the affected countries are emerging democracies and are undertaking rigorous economic reform programs. It would be a travesty to allow drought to obliterate hard-won development progress.
Recently in Geneva, members of the United Nations met to discuss the international response to this potential disaster. The UN and the Southern Africa Development Coordinating Conference have urgently appealed for food and other relief aid.
Rainfall data and satellite imaging alerted the international community to the severity of the drought and have allowed lead time for governments and international donors to plan and implement relief programs. But unless relief food is available on the local level when current stocks run out in August or September, there will be a disaster of epic proportions.
The three to four months it takes for food to be shipped and delivered to recipients underscores the reality that we must act now in order to prevent starvation which looms just around the corner.
Mass starvation is not yet occurring in southern Africa, but early signs of the drought are alarming. There are increasing numbers of malnourished children and dehydrated infants. The nutritional status of other vulnerable populations - pregnant and lactating mothers, the elderly, urban poor - is also declining.
Livestock prices are plummeting as farmers try to sell their cattle and goats before they starve or die of thirst. Once the cattle are sold, the rural farmer will have no milk, no meat products, nor any draft animals to help in planting next year's crop.
Children are leaving schools so their families will have more money to purchase food, as the price of maize, the staple grain in the region, steadily rises.
Water supplies are also a critical problem. Some cities could run out of water, triggering population movements which relief officials agree would be disastrous. Not only would they overwhelm marginal urban infrastructures and aggravate the already serious AIDS problem, but they would also keep farmers from planting next year, thus sparking an ominous cycle.
Transportation is also a major hurdle. The intricate choreography of moving massive amounts of supplies from ports to people will be an unprecedented challenge to the countries of southern Africa.
South Africa's ports will receive 80 percent of all the relief food for further distribution. In order to transport the requisite amounts of relief food, South Africa must distribute 35,000 truck loads of grain each month - more than 1,000 truck loads each day.
The United Nations's World Food Program has made significant progress in setting up the coordination necessary to run the relief effort. South African railroad and port authorities are also planning to bring thousands of mothballed boxcars back into service to prepare for the relief shipments. The level of cooperation among the affected countries could determine the success, or failure, of this relief effort. To date, regional collaboration has been encouraging.
The United States already has committed more than 1 million metric tons of food to the region, but another 4 million metric tons are needed, and needed quickly, from the world community. Other kinds of help, such as emergency water projects and conservation programs, are urgently needed, too. It is clearly a life and death situation.
The international community must respond immediately.