While the attention of the powerful countries of the world remains fixed on the political and military chess being played in Central America, another tragedy has been unraveling, largely unnoticed, in Bolivia.

The clear air of the altiplano has the stillness of death. The worst drought in more than a century has brought desolation to the vast, naked Andean terrace. Almost 40 percent of the Bolivian territory has been affected, including all of the altiplano, most of the mountain valleys and even about 10 percent of the usually humid and fertile flatlands.

In fully half of this almost 300,000- square-mile area, all crops have been lost, while in the other half the crops have received moderate to severe damage. About 1 million people are close to famine conditions. Four thousand head of cattle, 160,000 sheep and no less than 70,000 llamas have died of thirst. Dozens of varieties of potatoes, many of which only exist in the altiplano, are in risk of extinction because farmers are resorting to eating the seeds. Large volumes of people have started to flee the countryside for the relative abundance of cities such as La Paz, where there are already increasing signs of food shortages.

No statistics, however, can match the drama of hungry children. Although still rosy-cheeked because of the mountain air, they already show the effects of severe malnutrition. These children can be seen in the streets of PotosMi or La Paz, inert and weak under thin rags of clothes.

The severity of drought and famines has been historically underestimated. Our memory is still full of the tragedy of Biafra, where millions died before the eyes of a largely passive and uncomprehending world audience. History books remind us of mass starvations in India and Bangladesh. But never have we faced these horrors in our own hemisphere and in such a dramatic fashion as is now developing in Bolivia.

The Bolivian tragedy forces us to a reflection on priorities. Although international organizations and countries have shown much sympathy, they have not been able to provide aid with the required speed. No significant aid has reached Bolivia. Bureaucratic entanglement has overcome the best of intentions.

Serious thought should be given to the establishment of an emergency fund that would be administered by the United Nations or another suitable international organization and that could be mobilized rapidly, circumventing the complicated bureaucracy. Such a fund could be under the direct supervision of the U.N. secretary general. Perhaps in this fashion aid would come to the countries in need when it really counts.

In the meantime, thousands of Bolivian lives could be saved by well- timed relief action. Governments of our hemisphere can act as decisively to provide this relief as they have acted in response to the expanding Central American conflict. This action could well become the best homage paid to Simon Bolivar on the 200th anniversary of the liberator's birth.