FEW regions of the world are as inhospitable as the African Sahel, where the relentlessly expanding desert has consumed vast agricultural lands and created persistent famine.
Twenty years ago groups of young villagers in Burkina Faso decided to fight back. With almost no money and only the simplest of technologies, they began building primitive dikes to trap scarce rain water long enough to moisten small plots of land. The result was a significant increase in crop yields. Long-term affects have been even more promising: reclamation of hundreds of acres of farmland once lost to the encroaching sand.
The work of the so-called "Naam movement" in Burkina Faso is one reason that the percentage of the world's population that is hungry is slowly declining, according to a report issued yesterday by the Bread for the World Institute on Hunger and Development.
But even as the percentage declined, the report concludes, the absolute number of hungry people continued to grow in 1990-91.
Food shortages are most acute in the Asia/Pacific area, where a majority of the world's hungry now live. But hunger is worsening even in bastions of prosperity like the United States, where the number of people living in poverty rose from 31.5 million in 1989 to 33.6 million in 1990.
The report says several special circumstances exacerbated food shortages over the past year, including the Persian Gulf war and sweeping political change in the former Soviet bloc. Caught between economic systems following the collapse of communism, 80 million people in the Soviet Union now are vulnerable to hunger, according the report - entitled "Hunger 1992."
Also, civil wars in Africa have destroyed agricultural land and disrupted transport and marketing.
In all, half a billion adults and children are in a continual state of hunger, while another half billion are too poor to obtain an adequate diet for a productive work life. The two categories represent 20 percent of the world's population.
A study released Tuesday by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization adds that food …