Famine stalks South-East Asian trouble spots

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GROWING reports of severe food shortages, leading to famine, are coming in from various parts of South-East Asia. Unusually low levels of rainfall have produced widespread drought which threatens death, disease and malnutrition.

The extent of the problems, emerging so early in the year, suggests that by the time rains come in May or June they will lead to floods and worse food shortages than last year. The drought is blamed on the El Nino weather phenomenon.

Worst hit appears to be the southern Philippines where aid agencies say almost 1 million people are suffering from severe food shortages. Rainfall in the Philippines is now 90 per cent below normal levels. In the south of the country it has led to widespread crop failures. The Chamber of Commerce in the city of General Santos sent a message to President Fidel Ramos describing the food shortages as "the worst ever to hit the country" and warning that "your people in the countryside are starving and can barely eat a meal a day".

The President has ordered a sack of rice to be given to each family in the affected area, which lies at heart of a now largely dormant Muslim rebellion.

Meanwhile in East Timor, where the Indonesian authorities face resistance to the occupation of the former Portuguese colony, there are reports that 85 villagers starved to death as a result of crop failure.

The report comes from the Australian-based East Timor International Support Centre, which states that the "situation is bordering on famine".

The droughts producing these shortages have also claimed hundreds of lives elsewhere in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In south and central Vietnam the highest temperatures since 1912 and the driest period in a century are causing crop failures. The dry conditions are also exacerbating forest fires which flared in the Philippines and the Indonesian portion of Borneo.

El Nino is also blamed for the fatal combination of droughts followed by flooding which are causing food shortages in North Korea. Even in well-developed Malaysia there have been severe water shortages in the Klang Valley, close to the capital Kuala Lumpur.

The combination of food shortages and the financial crisis in the region is putting a severe strain on fragile economies. Because the food shortages are concentrated in politically sensitive areas they also raise the possibility of civil unrest.