THE first phase of the biggest drought relief effort ever mounted is helping to avert a human disaster in the 12 countries of southern Africa.
The regional drought, which came at a time of extreme hardship caused by economic recession, austerity programs, and civil wars, has ravaged the regional economy and drained most of the resources earmarked for vital development work. Millions of people have been displaced from their homes. And southern Africa has seen a bigger crop loss than that faced by Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in 1984 and 1985.
But the relief effort - the result of painstaking planning and regional and international cooperation on an unprecedented scale - has staved off the threat of famine and had a constructive influence beyond the distribution of short-term aid.
Over the past eight months, more than 7.7 million tons of grain have been delivered by an estimated 350 ships through nine regional ports - a volume of food relief nearly five times the amount dispatched in the mid-1980s to the Horn. (Figures throughout this report are in short tons.)
"The good news is that we have been ahead of the drought from the start," says Ted Morse, director of the United States Agency for International Development for Zimbabwe and Southern Africa programs. "By getting ahead of the drought we are preventing it becoming a famine. So we won't get the problems of southern Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia."
The 12 countries affected are South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania, and Madagascar.
Apart from averting widespread disaster, the relief effort has:
* Required close regional cooperation, and thus has played a significant role in breaking down political barriers and easing historical tensions between South Africa and its black-ruled neighbors.
* Bolstered the fragile peace accord in Mozambique and drawn the international community into a greater role in the transition to democracy.
* Increased pressures for democratic reforms in Zimbabwe by highlighting the shortcomings of state control of the drought relief effort.
* Accelerated the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa by exposing racial bias in the allocation and distribution of drought relief and inefficiency and corruption in homeland administrations.
Those states with democratic governments - Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia - have fared best in terms of drought relief.
Zambia, which introduced multiparty democracy a year ago, has developed a model for relief efforts run by nongovernmental aid and development organizations rather than the state - and based on the principle of food-for-work.
In South Africa, the shortcomings of the government relief program have spawned an umbrella body - the Consultative Forum on Drought - which has forged cooperation among trade unions, liberation movements, churches, development groups, and the government.
In Mozambique, where international aid workers had feared a disaster on the scale of the current famine in Somalia, a peace accord signed on Oct. 4 has boosted the drought relief program and ensured that food is reaching even the most remote villages.
Malawi, a landlocked country still in the grip of an authoritarian regime, has benefited least from the drought relief effort, partly because of logistical problems with transporting food through Mozambique. But the government has also failed to acknowledge the country's food needs and ordered commercial grain too late.
Only in Angola, where past tensions erupted into nationwide violence following the country's first democratic ballot at the end of September, has drought relief almost ground to a complete halt.
Crop failures in the order of 70 to 80 percent have turned Zimbabwe and South Africa, usually net exporters of corn, into net importers. Zimbabwe has imported 2.4 million tons of commercial grain and received 0.9 million tons in food aid. South Africa has imported 6.6 million tons of commercial grain.
Regionally, imports have sky-rocketed from 2.3 million tons during the last harvest year to more than 14.5 million tons in the current 12-month period ending in March - if pledges are honored. Between 4.4 million and 6.1 million tons of corn have yet to be shipped to the region.
"What makes this drought different is that the affected countries - with the exception of Mozambique - can afford to import corn for drought relief. They have the financial credit to do that," says David Morton, southern Africa area director for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
"Countries like Zimbabwe also have a good infrastructure of roads and railways," Mr. Morton says, which has helped make donors more forthcoming.
The 10-nation Southern African Development Community appealed to donors on Dec. 14 for $854 million worth of additional relief food, which increases the original target of 6.7 million tons for the 10 SADC countries to 8.5 million tons (including 3.3 million tons of WFP food and 5.2 million tons of target food aid).
At the end of last month, contributions from donors fell short of requirements by about 30 percent.
Deliveries have reached a peak in recent weeks and grain is being stored on ships and in silos in South Africa as the congested rail and road system works overtime to clear the offloaded grain.
The relief effort will continue at least until March in anticipation of the harvesting season in May, aid workers say.
Good December rains, which have fallen in large parts of drought-stricken Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Mozambique, do not mean that the drought has broken or that there will be a good crop next year.
Meteorologists say that those rains should be sufficient to revive parched pasture lands for starving cattle and would put some water in the smaller dams.
"But it will take much more rain to reach tree root-systems and boreholes and to replenish the bigger dams," says South African Weather Bureau forecaster Mike Laing.
Much will depend on the regional distribution of rain over the next couple of months, and the timing and extent of vital follow-up rains to nurture the young corn plants to maturity.
In some areas of southern Zimbabwe, the rains have at least produced some grazing for a dwindling band of emaciated cattle and have also enabled some communal farmers to plow and sow their seeds for the next season.
But the planting season has been delayed by a lack of seeds, the absence of draft cattle for plowing, a chronic shortage of tractors, and the preparation of fields by women using hoes.
The relief effort has seen unprecedented cooperation between South Africa's efficient rail and port authorities - Spoornet and Portnet - the United States Agency for International Development, the UN World Food Programme, the Southern African Development Community, and the governments of the 12 states affected by the drought.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has played a key role in opening food corridors in Mozambique, and a plethora of nongovernmental organizations have played a vital support role in the operations.