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UPDATE. The African famine

Disaster prevention: It's a subject likely to draw increased attention on Capitol Hill next year. Experts agree there is a need to detect and respond more quickly to famines and other emergencies. One reason for the growing concern: alarming trends toward more frequent and destructive natural disasters, ranging from earthquakes and floods to famines caused by environmental degradation and spiraling population growth.

According to a widely-cited 1984 Red Cross report, both the size of vulnerable populations and the destruction caused by natural disasters have increased during the past 20 years. The report notes the disproportionate toll such disasters have taken on countries least able to cope.

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Another reason is the slow worldwide response to the year-old Ethiopian famine. Experts agree that had warning signs been heeded earlier and had more effective early-response mechanisms been in place, the effects of that famine might have been less catastrophic.

``In Africa we witnessed the needless loss of several million people to outright starvation because neither host governments nor the donor community had the assessment and response mechanisms in place to avert the famine,'' says Rep. Mickey Leland (D) of Texas, chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger. Mr. Leland says next year his committee may study the ability to respond more effectively to such ``creeping disasters''.

One likely object of congressional concern: The underfunded US disaster assistance program. Congressional sources say the budget of the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance has not kept pace with inflation or population. The result: Just as its mission has expanded its resources have shrunk by half.

Congressional sources give the agency high marks for helping developing countries increase their own capacty to predict and control disasters. But many in Congress will now be looking for more money to provide early warning, assessment, and response capability to combat disasters such as a future famine.

AID report: Congressional sources have reacted with consternation to a new status report on US government response to the African famine. The study, prepared by the US Agency for International Development, an arm of the State Department, concludes that ``there have been no widespread famines. Massive deaths due to the many effects of starvation have been avoided. This is encouraging.''

The language of the report is variously described as ``incomprehensible'' and ``unbelievable'' by congressional sources who note that estimates by press and voluntary organizations active in the famine belt indicate as many as 5 million lives may have been lost across sub-Saharan Africa during the past 12 to 15 months.

``Even [AID administrator Peter M.] McPherson admits to several hundred thousand deaths. If this isn't `massive,' what is?'' asks one congressional aide.

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