One year after about 100,000 of its people died of starvation, Mozambique is imperiled by famine again.
Only a massive international relief effort so far has prevented a repetition of last year's disaster. But government officials and foreign relief workers are warning that delays in food shipments from abroad and the difficulties in transporting food to remote rural areas almost certainly will mean hundreds and possibly thousands of deaths in the next few months.
"If the ship doesn't arrive this month, then we are in terrible shape," said Home Trade Minister Manuel Jorge Aranda da Silva, the official in charge of the national relief program, during a recent tour of the Pambara food distribution center near the port of Vilanculos. "Our warehouses in this province are empty."
The five state-run warehouses in Inhambane city, capital of Inhambane Province, where several thousand Mozambicans died of hunger last year, are supposed to be resupplied with 360 tons of grain by a ship operated by the World Food Program every two weeks.
Officials here say the ship has not made a delivery since mid-December. They estimate that there are no more than 150 tons of food in the warehouses to feed a province of more than 1 million people.
Most of the warehouses have leaky roofs and offer easy targets for rodents and vermin. In one, paper inventory lists have been removed from food sacks because rats were eating them.
The government said in a report earlier this month that it needs 339,000 tons of food to see the country through April, when the local harvest begins. It reported supplies and commitments from international donors of 225,000, leaving a shortfall of 84,000 tons.
Mozambique is not alone in its crisis. Dozens of sub-Saharan African countries face famine caused by drought, skyrocketing population growth, bad advice from aid donors and disastrous government agricultural policies.
"This month we believe no one will die," said Amos Mahanjane, director of the Department for the Prevention and Control of Natural Calamities, in an interview. "But after this will come a very dangerous time, and many could die."
In fact, in remote areas of Inhambane and Gaza provinces, officials and relief workers say, some already have died, although no statistics have been compiled.
Officials have reported at least eight deaths in rural Inhambane during the past three months and say isolated reports of other deaths are trickling in.
The food crisis has resulted from a combination of harsh drought, which in some parts of the country is recurring for the fifth consecutive year, and agricultural policies the government now concedes were misguided.
The consequences have been magnified by a widespread campaign of economic sabotage and terror conducted by antigovernment insurgents who in many areas have cut off virtually all means of ground transportation, making it nearly impossible to ship food from productive areas to those with shortages.
The government report placed the total drought-affected population at 2.5 million and noted that rainfall in some regions has returned to normal, raising hopes for an adequate harvest after April. But several provinces, including Inhambane and Gaza in the south and Tete in the northeast, either have not received adequate rain or face a potential crisis while waiting for crops to mature.
During the past month, the official estimate of drought-affected people here has jumped from 362,000 to 400,000, according to Antonio Matsemane, a senior provincial official of Frelimo, the country's sole legal political party.
"If the boat does not arrive soon, people will die," he said.
Gregory Alex, an American CARE worker assigned here, said the conditions already has reached a critical stage. "Even if the boat started arriving every day, there's such a backlog of need that it wouldn't be enough," he said.
More than 45,000 persons remain at emergency relief camps established last year in northern Inhambane, where people are receiving far less than the minimum daily food ration of 400 grams and many days are receiving no ration at all. Because they are also not receiving seeds, some are setting aside their food ration for planting.
"People here have stopped dying, but they still have very serious malnutrition," said Igor Vaz, a doctor at the Pambara relief center. "Most of the children have some brain damage because they have gone too long with malnutrition."
In neighboring Gaza, the government has reported 387,000 people in need of outside aid, but relief workers believe the real number could exceed 600,000 -- more than 80 percent of the population.
"Little information is coming out, and even less food aid is going in," said a provincial report prepared for the government last month by CARE.
To the north, in Sofala Province, the December report noted, malnutrition among children in Machange district was 68 percent. Three other districts surveyed showed levels of more than 50 percent.
Adequate rain has fallen in Tete Province, leading officials to predict that it will avoid the same crisis that led to thousands of deaths there last year and sent 100,000 refugees fleeing across the border into Zimbabwe. But officials still put the total affected population at 582,000, more than double last January's figure.
Adequate distribution of supplies is prevented by overwhelming transportation problems. Twice the size of California, Mozambique winds along 1,500 miles of Indian Ocean coast. Only one paved road connects much of the country, and it is under constant attack by rebels. Roads leading inland are for the most part single-lane, pothole-covered dirt tracks.
As a result, food and other supplies in surplus in some parts of Mozambique cannot be moved to others. There are between 5,000 and 6,000 tons of potentially life-saving salt crammed into warehouses in Nova Mambone in northern Inhambane, according to Jossias Joaquin Nhate, provincial director of internal commerce. But it cannot be shipped elsewhere in the province for lack of ships and trucks.
"The warehouse is full, but people are dying for lack of salt," he said.
Similarly, thousands of tons of harvested mangoes lie rotting in the sun in drought-stricken Gaza for lack of transport, according to Arne Disch, program officer for the U.N. development program in Maputo.
Where transport is available, it is often of the wrong type to meet the particular needs of Mozambique's interior. The 31 trucks registered with the government in Inhambane all weigh at least 15 tons, far too big to haul food along the winding dirt roads there. Only 15 are operational, according to Alex, of CARE.
The trucks need a minimum of 15,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel each month but receive only 6,750. Even that amount has not arrived since late November, Alex said.
Foreign aid workers in Maputo say the near-empty warehouses in Inhambane are largely the result of poor planning and lack of coordination among the dozen or more aid agencies here, who have poured more than 200,000 tons of food into Mozambique during the past year. Part of the problem, said one aid specialist, was that aid workers had rushed supplies to Tete a few months ago in anticipation of a crisis there, while ignoring the less publicized but more devastating developments in Gaza and Inhambane.
"We're always behind the need," said Disch of the U.N. program. "We have no early warning system, and it takes at least three to four months lead time to get new food orders."
The aid agencies say at least two food shipments to Mozambique -- a U.S. delivery of 15,000 tons and a Dutch shipment of 8,000 -- are a week or more late. Once they arrive it will take at least two weeks to unload and reload them in Maputo for shipment to Inhambane.
"The problem is we need it now," Alex said. "Next month will be too late."