LOGISTICAL problems in transporting drought relief and a delay in ordering commercial grain have brought land-locked Malawi to the brink of a major disaster.
"If we don't manage to increase the rate of deliveries to Malawi there is going to be real starvation in that country," says Roger Buckland, technical adviser to the Food Security Technical and Administrative Unit of the 10-nation Southern African Development Community.
"We are facing a pending humanitarian disaster."
A series of factors have contributed to the critical situation in Malawi:
* Slow and dangerous passage of food and relief supplies through Mozambique's Tete corridor, the war-torn northwest region bordering Malawi.
* A shortfall in pledges of food aid and delays in food deliveries.
* Political gridlock in Malawi between pro-democracy forces and the autocratic regime of President H. Kamuzu Banda.
* Congestion on the Beira corridor - the vital transportation link between the Indian Ocean and Zimbabwe.
* A continuing flow of Mozambican refugees to Malawi.
Malawi needs 33,000 tons of grain a month - 1,100 tons a day - to feed the 4.7 million of its 8.5 million people dependent on food aid and the 1 million Mozambican refugees in camps in the southeast of the country.
From April to October it was receiving less than half the required amount. By the end of November, only 220,000 tons out of 825,000 tons of donor-pledged food had been delivered to Malawi. Stocks from commerical imports are down to three or four weeks.
Relief agencies and transport officials have agreed that Malawi should be given priority treatment. But there is still a serious shortfall in pledges.
"The problem was that - in the beginning - Malawi did not admit that they needed to import grain," says Arnt Breivik, head of the United Nations World Food Programme's logistics advisory unit in Johannesburg.
Mercedes Sayagues, WFP regional information director, agrees. "Because of the political situation, there is a crisis in decisionmaking at the government level when it comes to assigning priorities. This impacts, particularly, on commerical imports."
"The World Bank recently granted Malawi credit for 110,000 tons of grain, which is due to arrive in mid-January," Mr. Breivik adds. A further 187,000 tons is due by the end of December but this poses a major logistical challenge.
Most of the grain going to Malawi is hauled from South African ports - mainly Durban - by train and trucks through Zimbabwe and Zambia. The rest passes through the Mozambican ports of Beira and Nacala and the Tanzanian port of Dar-Es-Salaam.