Relief officials predict severe food shortages


WASHINGTON -- United Nations officials in charge of funneling relief aid to victims of war and drought are warning of severe food shortages in Central Africa, Bosnia-Herzegovina and other areas because of multiplying crises and cutbacks in donations by wealthy nations.

Relief officials are making emergency pleas for the United States, Japan, the European Union and other donors to contribute additional food to help hundreds of thousands of refugees from wars in Rwanda, Bosnia, Liberia and the Caucasus region who are now receiving a fraction of the normal daily food allotment.

"Right now we are operating hand-to-mouth," said Catherine Bertini, executive director of the World Food Program, a U.N. agency responsible for emergency food relief. There are currently 25 crises involving 24.3 million people.

"Our stockpiles are at an all-time low," she said. "We borrow from everywhere we can. If there is a new crisis, it will be very difficult for us to come up with more food. It's all needed so desperately."

In Goma, Zaire, for example, some 700,000 Rwandans in refugee camps have been receiving rations of 1,077 calories a day, half the desired amount.

Donor nations have contributed just one-sixth of the 138,000 metric tons of food needed this year to feed about 1.7 million people fleeing wars in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Chechnya.

Last week the World Food Program made an emergency plea to donors, saying it would have to slash rations for 437,000 people in Sarajevo and 300,000 people in other encircled Bosnian enclaves in July unless wealthy nations immediately contributed more money.

"We have never been in such bad shape in the former Yugoslavia, and we are really getting nervous," Ms. Bertini said. "We need firm pledges right now."

Relief experts fear their efforts to meet emergency needs could fall hopelessly behind this year if either of two feared catastrophes materializes: a flood of refugees from Burundi, whose ethnic tensions parallel those in Rwanda, or a prolongation of the drought in southern African countries, including Botswana.

"We're all worried that drought could produce a very bad harvest southern Africa this year," said Lionel Rosenblatt, president of Refugees International, a Washington-based relief organization. "We're definitely out of food and money for the next big emergency."

In one sign that the cupboard is nearly bare, the United States has just $25 million left in its $817 million emergency food budget with five months left in the fiscal year.

Governments, aid officials say, usually come up with enough food to prevent famine when a Bosnia or Rwanda leaps onto the evening news and front pages. That was the case a year ago, pTC when Rwanda's ethnic massacres and refugee crisis galvanized the world into action.

But many of the new shortages are arising in areas where crises have dragged on for years, like Bosnia, or in places that have only hovered near catastrophe, like Liberia, where civil strife has disrupted food production since 1989.

Under pressure from Congress to cut foreign assistance, the Clinton administration has proposed cutting U.S. food aid to $1.02 billion next year, less than half the amount allotted in 1993.

Compounding the shortfall are cuts in agricultural subsidies, which have effectively erased vast surpluses that many Western countries used to tap to relieve crises overseas.

Demand, meanwhile, has grown steadily. First came crises in the Sudan and Afghanistan that required outside agencies to feed more than 2 million people. Angola was added to the list in 1989, and Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda the next year.

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