Relief officials in Afghanistan are warning that a humanitarian crisis is looming in the southern part of the country because of persistent drought and inadequate relief efforts. Nearly one-half million displaced people are said to be at risk.

The regional head of the Ministry for Repatriation, Sayed Abdul Hamid Ashemi, says a human disaster is looming in camps for displaced people (IDPs) in Spin Boldak, near the Pakistani border, and in the no-man's land bordering the Pakistani town, Chaman. "The people who are living in the IDP camps in Spin Boldak are living in terrible conditions," he said.

The director of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in the region, Mohammed Adar, says that although the rains returned last month to northern parts of Afghanistan, the southern region is enduring its fifth straight year of drought.

"The drought is as bad as it was before September 11," he said. "Unfortunately, it has been largely forgotten. Other events that are taking place in Afghanistan seem to have overshadowed the severity of the drought."

Many of the drought victims are nomads. Afghan officials say they have lost as much as 90 percent of their herds. Moreover, they say the next harvest is not due until next May and, as a result, farmers will also depend on international aid to survive the next year.

In addition, about 40,000 Afghans have moved into a stretch of no-man's land along the Pakistani border near Chaman. Many of these people are ethnic Pashtuns, originally from the south, who migrated to northern Afghanistan, generations ago. They fled to the south, following the fall of the Taleban Government last year, after experiencing violent reprisals by northern militias. Mr. Adar says these internal refugees are experiencing the worst conditions. "These people have no access to water, to proper sanitation, to health facilities, to food. Temperatures are rising. Children are suffering from dehydration, diarrhea and there are reported cases of death," he said.

However, the Pakistani Government, which is already hosting several million Afghan refugees, has refused to let these people enter Pakistan. And, in the hopes of pressuring them to leave the no-man's land, it has restricted humanitarian access to them.

Moreover, relief efforts are hindered by a shortfall in funding. There were only a few distributions of food this year and, this week, they were suspended completely by the World Food Program in many areas. Moreover, the United Nations is having trouble recruiting relief organizations to work in the south. Officials say security problems and harassment under the ousted Taleban Government have made it difficult to find groups to manage the camps and transport returnees back to their homes. As a result, relief officials predict a growing crisis in the coming months, if the international community does not rally to aid the region.