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The African famine

Getting food to those who need it is the most critical relief problem in Africa today, said the United Nations Office for Emergency Operations in Africa in a report issued last week. In most areas Africa's drought has been broken. Food supplies, though still not meeting total need, are in port or on the way. But the lack of transport vehicles, fuel, and spare parts -- as well as the expertise needed to move the food -- continue to hamper food delivery.

Food supply itself remains a problem as well.

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``New pledges are still urgently needed . . . so that essential needs can be met,'' the UN report says.

The next two months are crucial, says Paul Hoeffel, a spokesman for the Information Service Office of the UN's Africa Emergency Operation. Before the main harvest in the Sahel region late this fall, people must depend on food stocks that are now at their lowest level ever. Steady delivery of aid is critical.

Northwestern Sudan, now experiencing even more serious shortages, needs immediate emergency relief. The good news is that Burundi, Kenya, Lesotho, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zambia are off the emergency food list.

Concerns about coordinating relief efforts are rising. A spokesman for the United States House of Representatives' Select Committee on Hunger says a major problem impeding African relief is a failure to plan ahead. ``Each step,'' the spokesman says, ``is handled as a new crisis. Forward thinking is still not evident; nobody is anticipating the next step.''

``Considering the problems,'' says Paul Olkhovsky, a spokesman for the US Agency for International Development, ``coordination of relief efforts in Africa is remarkable -- amazing. Remember, this is not a development operation, it's a rescue operation.''

Highlights from the UN report:

Angola: Agricultural recovery unlikely in 1985-86 because of civil strife and lack of basic farming materials. Continued need for food relief. Distribution problems.

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Burkina Faso: Aid pledges falling short. About 1 million people now affected by drought.

Burundi: Good crop harvest has ended overall food shortage but growing population and declining agricultural resources point to future problems.

Cape Verde Islands: Situation precarious. Drinking water is scarce. Agriculture needs massive infusion of aid.

Chad: Truck shortage. Rains have made roads impassable. Malnutrition among children very high. About 1.5 million severely affected by drought.

Ethiopia: Major bottleneck because of lack of transport facilities. Serious malnutrition in remote areas. Estimated number of people affected: 8 million. Harvest prospects for end of the year are good.

Mali: Serious distribution problems. Urgent need for supplementary feeding programs. Harvest prospects are much improved.

Mozambique: Malnutrition on the rise in some areas. Heavy rains, lack of distribution facilities, civil strife have made overall food situation worse. At least 2.3 million people affected.

Somalia: Good news with a dark lining. Prospects for excellent harvest have prompted fears that possible declines in food prices will discourage planting for next year. Fuel shortages crimp aid delivery efforts.

Sudan: A rapid deterioration in the food supply situation, especially in Kordofan and Darfur provinces. Starvation speading. Urgent need for transport facilities, more fuel. The Agency for International Development reports that 10 locomotives, in transit from Brazil, will help delivery.

Zimbabwe: Agricultural outlook excellent. Only isolated cases of drought-created hunger. The country should be able to export food after this year's harvest. Improvements in the transport sector. This column, keeping readers abreast of the famine and relief efforts, will appear most Fridays.

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