Southern Africa, the continent's bread-basket, is facing its worst drought for 50 years. Angus Macdonald focuses on Botswana and the fears of the people most at risk
PULA in the Setswana language of Botswana means "rain". It is also the name for the official currency of the drought-hit southern African country. But to the majority of Batswana. rain is far pore valuable than mere money.
So crucial is the coming of the rains for Botswana's 5 million people that the country's President Quett Masirc has been known to broadcast national appeals over the radio for the people to pray for it.
But this year in Botswana as in the rest of southern Africa the prayers have been in vain. There has been no rain. Harvests in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia and South Africa have been pitifully small. and so far the region as a whole has only been able to produce a third of the grain it normally expects.
Boreholes and wells are dry, livestock are dying or having to be slaughtered and the region's already shaky economies are having to find the resources to stave off famine.
Drought is nothing new to southern Africa. The first white settlers to visit the Kalahari Desert called it "the Great Thirstland", and it has always been a place of extreme aridity even when there is no drought a place of sparse scrubby acacia trees rolling away to the horizon. brown grasses and shimmering !tare.
The locals will tell you that there will be dry spells on average every seven years. The weather experts say it's getting worse, though nobody really knows why. But whatever the reasons, to the people of the region it heralds suffering on a tremendous scale.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned that the drought will affect food supplies so badly that there will he the worst famine in the region for over 50 years. The EC Commissioner for the third world has said this means 60 million people face famine in Africa in the coming year.
The first signs of that famine are already visible: an agricultural expert who has returned recently from Botswana tells of cattle clustering in desperation around a dripping village standpipe.
The cassava (sweet potato) and small green tomatoes which used to appear in the markets have long since gone.
Worst of all, word has gone out from the Ministry of Agriculture to the village headmen that the cattle must be slaughtered.
The cattle posts provide a livelihood for much of Botswana's rural population. To a Motswana. slaughtering the cattle is like throwing away money. Even if the more immediate problems of drought are overcome, the loss of livestock is storing up economic hardship for the future. But the people must have water before the animals, and there is nothing else to be done.
Further north, in Zimbabwe, the situation is also grave. President Robert Mugabe has declared a national emergency. The government has announced that electricity will have to be cut to homes and farms from the end of this month.
Experts estimate that Zimbabwe alone until now a net exporter of food to the rest of the region will itself have to import 1.7 million tonnes of maize to feed its people.
Zimbabwe's Catholic bishops have already initiated a supplementary feeding programme for under-fives in the country and arc appealing for assistance from the international community.
Old political suspicions crumble as the harsh economics of drought begin to bite: Zimbabwe's transport minister recently met his South African counterpart to speed up maize imports despite President Robert Mugabe's stated policy of no ministerial contact with the white minority regime.
"Who gives a whammy about Africa?" Britain's aid agencies, including CAFOD. asked last week in a poster campaign as the British election ground to its introspective close. "Don't forget
Africa or the politicians will". Thankfully, not all have the European Community last week approved 680,000 tonnes of food aid for Africa but it needs much more if a great human tragedy is to be avoided. The agencies estimate that the continent as a whole will need around 6.5 million tonnes of food, as well as 'help with distribution and transport.
The ramifications of famine are political as well as human: CAFOD warns that the positive moves towards democracy and multi-party elections which many countries in the region have seen may be under threat as the economic dislocation of famine hits home.
African church representatives recently made a stirring appeal to the Council of Churches for