The crops have failed, the animals are dying and the fish have gone. The hope that once thrived in General Santos town has turned to despair. Take one breath in the Philippine archipelago's southernmost port, which was until recently a boomtown, and your mouth fills with dust. Residents shuffle about forlornly, looking up in hope at a vast open sky that has not produced rain since Christmas Eve and has turned some of the most fertile land in the Philippines into a rolling, rust-coloured desert. The March crops have shrivelled in the ground and the goats are dying as they forage in creek beds that run dry to a shimmering, midnight-blue ocean. 'The sea looks beautiful, but there is nothing out there for us anymore - that is dead as well,' says fisherman Nelson Mandguez as he joins a crowd mobbing a Red Cross truck for a handout bucketful of the first emergency rice. 'When El Nino comes, the tuna go . . . but I still have to feed six children. Slowly we are all eating less and less and less. I am still trying to make sure we eat three times a day but we feel hungry all the time.' The severe drought that is bringing devastation to the countryside surrounding General Santos may run for another two months at least, officials warn. The devastating effects of the El Nino phenomenon has spread across Asia. Fears of a prolonged famine around General Santos are mounting as the arid conditions take their toll on the hundreds of thousands of fishermen, farmers and isolated mountain tribes that produce as much as 40 per cent of the country's corn and rice. 'Everyone is getting sick here and we are the lucky ones who live near the city,' Mr Mandguez says amid the shacks of Newbolhol, a settlement in the sand at the edge of town. 'There is no work for us at sea, and nothing on the land. Many of us will be praying hard this Easter.' As families queue, empty tins that held sardines and tuna rust in the sand - a reminder of rich diets past. A few banners for presidential polls next month flutter on sagging trees nearby, but no one seems to pay any attention. To qualify for a bucketful of rice - three to four days' normal supply for a family - Mr Mandguez has had to do four days' voluntary council work, clearing drains and roads under a strict 'food for work' scheme which could end now as the Red Cross has arrived. 'You don't want people relying on dole-outs, but it is hard to work on an empty stomach,' says Marist Brothers padre Brother Bob McGovern of the Notre Dame of Dandiangas. 'Believe me, I have been here for 30 years and never seen a drought like this one,' he says. 'You could have real trouble here. The people flocking to this city are the ones who produce the food for the rest of the country. I hope people in Manila realise that.'