- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2002

The specter of a drought-induced famine haunts much of southern Africa this year, but the United States remains hopeful that a humanitarian catastrophe can be avoided.

"We've gotten on top of the problem early and have high hopes of averting the famine, which is threatening at least four countries in southern Africa," said Walter H. Kansteiner III, assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

In an interview last week, Mr. Kansteiner said Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe face the greatest risk.

Other reports suggest that the drought has spread westward to include Angola.

According to the U.N. World Food Program, about 145,000 tons of food, worth about $69 million, are needed in the coming months, and only about $3 million worth of food has been pledged.

Although Zimbabwe has been hard hit, the country most devastated by the drought is Malawi, with people there reported to be starving.

Malawi declared a state of disaster several weeks ago. But its troubles have only worsened, with a continuing cholera outbreak that has killed hundreds of people compounding the food shortages and straining an overburdened health care system.

In contrast, the lack of rainfall has had only a limited effect in South Africa.

According to Allen Wright of the South African Embassy press section, the drought has only affected Transvaal, the northernmost part of the country.

"Fortunately, we had sufficient stocks and the provincial government has handled the problem without us having to ask for outside aid, Mr. Wright said.

Apart from the threat of famine, Mr. Kansteiner discussed prospects for ending the long civil war in Sudan.

He said the mission of former Sen. John Danforth, Missouri Republican, had produced a meeting of the minds on what steps to take to end the conflict.

"The situation has changed, we think, for the better," Mr. Kansteiner said.

He said the United States is attempting to bypass the government of Zimbabwe and send food and relief supplies directly to the people.

Zimbabwe, led for 22 years by independence leader Robert Mugabe, has recently rubbed raw the nerves of Western nations with the seizure of white farms, strong-arm methods of ensuring a recent election victory over his pro-Western rival, Morgan Tsvangerai, and his intervention in the Congolese war on the side of Laurent Kabila's government.

"Robert Mugabe is an illegitimate leader, who is dragging the country further and further into despair," Mr. Kansteiner said.

"His struggle with [Mr. Tsvangerais] Movement for Democratic Change is more about his staying in power than any egalitarian ideal of land redistribution," he said.

Mr. Kansteiner said the United States will ship about 27 million tons of food to the country out of 50 million tons earmarked for the famine-stricken region.

But unlike food contributions to the other threatened nations, which will go to the respective governments, the United States will bypass the Mugabe government and send the food through private channels, such as relief groups and other nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs.

"We don't mind this, as long as the food gets to the people," Simbi Mubako, Zimbabwe's ambassador to the United States, said.

Mr. Mubako said Zimbabwe had hoped for twice the crop yield of last year. "But the searing drought, which began in January, has destroyed those expectations," he said.

Mr. Mubako also defended the conduct of the recent elections.

"Whatever election irregularities there might have been, they were not sufficient to alter the outcome," he said.

The irregularities are under consideration by Zimbabwe's courts, and discussion between representatives of the government and the MDC on a political settlement have been suspended pending judicial review.

Climatically, South Africa is two regions, a moist zone facing the south Atlantic and Indian oceans, and the mountainous, often-dry interior.

In Angola, the famine could hit half a million people, Doctors Without Borders said, as it began an appeal in Rome for international help for the country, according to Agence France-Presse.

"It is a humanitarian catastrophe which is waiting to happen," said Christopher Stokes who heads the group's Angolan operations.

Mr. Stokes criticized the lack of international interest in Angola, which he said risked turning the country in the early throes of peace after a 27-year civil war into a vast cemetery.

The doctors' group made its appeal in Rome in the run-up to the meeting of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to be held this month.

In April, the World Food Program warned that more than 5 million people across southern Africa might need food help, as the region is undergoing its worst food shortage in a decade.

It said it is feeding about 2.6 million people in Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and other countries in the region, and a new assessment suggested that millions more are falling deeper into hunger.

The story of famine in Africa is a recurring one, even in the relatively recent post-independence era.

In 1983, a famine in Ethiopia killed about a million people and ended the long-reigning monarchy of Haile Selassie.

In the same region in 1988, the U.N. project Lifeline Sudan gave NGOs the right to bring food to starving civilians on both sides of a civil war.

Famine also prompted the 1992-93 U.S. military operation in Somalia.

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