'There is still time to save lives in Africa': The UN warns that without Western aid, 40 million people will face starvation and death, writes Richard Dowden, Africa Editor

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'LAST year we said it was the worst year ever for Africa but this year has surpassed that,' Paul Mitchell, the head of information at the United Nations World Food Programme, said yesterday. The worst drought in living memory in southern Africa, and continuing war and drought in the Horn of Africa have affected 40 million people in Africa. Most of them will need some food aid between now and the end of the year if they are to survive, and the survivors will be impoverished.

It would, said Mr Mitchell, cost between dollars 3bn and dollars 4bn ( pounds 1.6bn to pounds 2.1bn) to feed Africa this year - 'the cost of running the Gulf war for a couple of days'.

So far the world has pledged only 40 per cent of what is needed. 'The worrying thing is that most of the big donors have already pledged and we are still 60 per cent short of the required amount,' said Mr Mitchell. The next six months will be crucial. 'We are already seeing some severe problems in Mozambique and Somalia and we are seeing a rapidly deteriorating spiral of malnutrition in Sudan, Eritrea and northern Kenya that might well lead to many thousands of deaths,' he said.

In the past, once the UN agencies identified potential famine and made appeals, the United States and the European Community provided the food. The warnings prevented famine. This year the US, the EC, Japan and others have already given more than ever before and now their minds are on other things. There is also a sense of hopelessness about places such as Somalia and Mozambique, where chaos and civil war obstruct food deliveries. But elsewhere it is simply a matter of drought, and food can be bought and distributed. There is no world-wide shortage of grain, it is a matter of money.

This year the drought in southern Africa has drawn away aid from the Horn of Africa. There is a shortfall of about 6.1 million tons of food in southern Africa this year. In Mozambique, war still prevents farming and creates hungry refugees, but elsewhere in the region the shortage is caused by almost total rain failure. South Africa, usually productive, is suffering a shortfall of 5 million tons. The region needs 1.6 million tons of food aid now for emergency distribution. In June, the UN and the southern African states appealed for dollars 854m for 18 million people whose food supplies have failed this year. So far only dollars 578m has been pledged. Britain gave another pounds 10m this week. According to David Bryer, the director of Oxfam, who has just returned from Zambia and Zimbabwe, 'all too little of that (pledged aid) has been turned into deliveries in the area . . . almost none is coming through at the moment and there is no clear timetable of delivery'.

The maize crop has failed completely, as have drought-resistant crops such as millet and sorghum, said Mr Bryer. Most people he met had lost half or more than half of their cattle. This means that when, and if, the rainy season starts in October many people will have no cattle to plough and no money to buy seeds and fertiliser.

The drought in Zimbabwe has caused a political upheaval which will have long-term implications. The government was slow to recognise the crisis and then it was discovered that, under pressure from the US and the World Bank, Zimbabwe sold a million tons of grain last year. The hunger has resurrected the dispute about land, because most of the hungry are the landless and smallholders while the large-scale, mainly white, farmers are still growing cotton and tobacco for cash on land which could be used for food.

Next week the UN is to relaunch an appeal for about dollars 600m for the Horn of Africa, where some 20 million people are affected by drought and war. Somalia is the worst affected because war has prevented food being harvested and distributed. In Mogadishu it is estimated that 100 children are dying every day through hunger. A decision by the UN to deploy 50 ceasefire monitors in Mogadishu may enable more food to be distributed in coming weeks.

In Ethiopia, prospects for the main harvest in August are bad because of poor rains in May. About 7 million people are affected and the country will need more than 1 million tons of food aid. So far 760,000 tons have been pledged but only 240,000 tons have been delivered. In Eritrea, 750,000 people are thought to be at risk and need 315,000 tons of food. Only a third of that has been pledged.

Nearly one million Kenyans are affected by drought and the country needs 300,000 tons of food aid. So far only a third of that has been pledged. Meanwhile, northern Kenya is filling with refugees escaping wars in Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

In Sudan, food security improved this year but in the south war has dislocated agriculture and markets and there is local famine.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation said in a recent report: 'There is still time to avert widespread loss of life on the scale witnessed in 1984-85, but a massive international relief effort will be required.'

Western governments will have to decide in the next few weeks whether or not to respond. In the past they have somehow scraped together the funds. Will this be the first time they decide not to?