Last week, the 2 million inhabitants of Harare, Zimbabwe, woke up to a new sign of societal collapse: No water flowed down the city pipes. President Robert Mugabe's men had run out of cash to pay for chemical disinfectants and to fuel the pumps.
Zimbabwe is in critical condition, thanks to the despotic greed of its aging dictator. This week in Harare and Bulawayo, the country's largest and once wealthy southern cities, there are massive shortages of gasoline and almost anything else purchased with foreign exchange. Locally produced cooking oil, sugar, corn flour, meat, and vegetables are also scarce. Gas stations are either shut or show long lines of hopeful drivers. Supermarkets display endless rows of toilet paper in the absence of edible goods.
"It is hot and the town is strewn with bad-tempered queues of desperate people trying to go about their everyday business," says an e-mail from a frustrated Harare resident.
In the countryside, the prospect of starvation is real - 6 million or 7 million people are at risk, primarily because Mr. Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriot Front (ZANU-PF) systematically denies even donated food to peasants or town dwellers who live in areas that voted against him.
Yet, because of massive media restrictions, very little of what is going on in Zimbabwe is being reported. Foreign correspondents are rare, local reporters are harassed and jailed, and newspapers bombed. The tragedy of Zimbabwe must be pieced together from reliable e-mail messages and telephone calls and close examination of the national budget and conditions on the street.
Zimbabwe has always fed itself and exported corn and wheat to its neighbors. But the government's invasion of commercial farms reduced productivity by 70 percent. Shortages of rainfall in some areas compounded the problem. The government exported stockpiled corn from previous years, and then confiscated private caches of grain, which it sold to the party faithful.
In three years, Zimbabwe's GDP per capita has fallen by 30 percent. Government budget deficits are the highest in the world, over 20 percent of GDP. Zimbabwe's annual per capita GDP has fallen from well over $600 per person in 1998 to $300 this year. Inflation, running at 38 percent last year, is now a punishing 200 percent. One US dollar, six months ago capable of buying 150 Zimbabwe dollars, can now purchase 2,000 Zimbabwe dollars on the black market. About 60 percent of adult Zimbabweans have no jobs and no prospects now that commercial farming has been shut down and mining and manufacturing are slumping.
Mugabe pays for his personal and family corruption, for party patronage and goods for the party faithful, for the farm invasions, and for his brutal security forces by siphoning foreign exchange earnings from tobacco exports, banks and insurance companies, and anything else that can be grabbed in the ramshackle, bankrupt society that Zimbabwe has become.
The only real savior has been Libya, which supplied desperately needed petroleum and cash in exchange for valuable farmland. But Libyan patience has now run out. Zimbabwe can no longer even pretend to pay for fuel and other imports; hence the dry pipes in Harare.
Mugabe last week threatened more Pol Pot-like attacks on the economic pillars of his country, and on his beleaguered opponents. More misery is on the way. A change for the better will come about only if his patronage dries up and his party deserts him, the hungry rise up, the army switches sides, he dies or is incapacitated, or - improbably - Washington, London, and Pretoria intervene to free the Zimbabwean people from their own Nebuchadnezzar.
• Robert I. Rotberg is director of Harvard University's Program on Intrastate Conflict at the Kennedy School and president of the World Peace Foundation.