FOR the first time since former Yugoslavia collapsed into interethnic conflict in 1991, United Nations relief agencies say there have been dramatic decreases in the numbers of people requiring food aid.
Because of a major boost in crop production and other factors, the number of people needing food aid in war-ravaged Bosnia-Herzegovina may now be only two-thirds of the previous estimate of 2.7 million, aid officials say.
Meanwhile, a new UN-supervised headcount by the Croatian government shows the number of refugees and displaced persons in that republic down from 515,000 to 379,908.
These include Muslims and Croats who fled into Croatia from Bosnia and Croats uprooted by the 1991 uprising by minority Serb rebels, who overran about 26 percent of Croatia.
``With the newly revised requirements, we don't think we will have a problem supplying food to former Yugoslavia through the end of the year,'' says Bradley Busetto, a spokesman for the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN agency that organizes food supplies.
Still, aid officials caution that the reductions may be only temporary, especially in Bosnia.
Although food aid can be lowered in Croatia, the drop in Bosnian recipients will not translate into a reduction in supplies, because the amounts reaching needy areas have always been far less than needed, officials say.
Furthermore, a lack of new donations has left the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with only enough money to fund aid deliveries and other efforts through September.
``The international community is getting fed up with the apparent lack of political will by the [Bosnian] sides, and there are also life-threatening emergencies elsewhere in the world, especially Rwanda,'' UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond explains.
Finally, persistent fighting, widespread poverty, and political uncertainty continue to hamper aid operations and threaten to precipitate fresh disasters without warning, officials say.
They cite the situation in Sarajevo, where food supplies are rapidly depleting because of the three-week Bosnian Serb blockade of commercial routes into the city and repeated gunfire-forced suspensions of the UN airlift.
``The situation in Bosnia, political and military, is always so unpredictable. Something could happen in two weeks' time that could change everything,'' warns David Riley, a UNHCR official.
The Monitor has learned that the estimated number of people needing food aid in Bosnia is to be cut because a yet-to-be published WFP survey has charted major hikes in crop production.
The survey, conducted in July, found that the US-brokered, Muslim-Croat cease-fire and formation of their new federation in April have permitted large-scale food cultivation throughout central Bosnia.
Crop production has also been aided by UN seed-delivery programs that include seed airdrops to Muslim enclaves.
Many people who do not normally grow food, particularly city-dwellers, have planted crops in window boxes, backyards, parks, and other available spaces.
``People have been using much more land than before to plant food,'' Mr. Busetto says. ``The food situation is much improved.''
Furthermore, the Muslim-Croat peace has opened central Bosnia to food-bearing commercial traffic from Croatia's Adriatic coast.
But, Busetto says, the WFP survey warns that the higher crop production will be short-lived if the 28-month-old war continues, because farmers' stocks of fertilizers, pesticides, fuel, and machinery spare parts are low.
``Within the next two years, agricultural production will drop down to next to nothing. Though harvests look good now, it's artificial,'' he says. ``The medium-term future looks bleak.''
Aid officials note that despite the huge inflow of commercial goods, many people in Bosnia have been made destitute by the war and have little or no money to buy food.
Food as well as other aid operations are also threatened by the UNHCR's funding shortfall.
While the WFP has enough food stocks to last through December, the UNHCR must have new funds for the fuel to deliver them, the warehouses to store them, and the workers to run the operation.
UNHCR officials say they have already begun suspending social programs and delaying fuel purchases, and may cut staff. ``We can't even pay the rent of our building in Zagreb,'' Mr. Redmond says. ``We are already ringing alarm bells.
But, with ``donor fatigue'' over former Yugoslavia running high in the international community, Redmond expresses concern about a lackluster response to a new appeal for funds being planned by the UNHCR less than two months after its last call for help.
In Croatia, the reductions charted in the refugee and displaced persons populations are attributed to a more efficient registration process and transfers to other countries.
An unknown number of people have also voluntarily returned to Bosnia, while about 45,000 displaced Croats have gone back to Adriatic regions and central Croatia, UNHCR officials say.