Darfur: No Peace, No Food

Nearly two million people are dependant on World Food Program (WFP) food distributions in order to survive in displaced persons camps in Darfur. The announcement of a reduction by half of the survival rations provided by WFP leads Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to be afraid of a serious nutritional crisis.

In May 2003, the Sudanese government launched a bloody campaign of repression against the civilian population of Darfur. Unable to counter the rebel movements that had appeared in western Sudan in 2000-2001 by military means, Khartoum decided to punish the rebels' base of social support. The army and paramilitary forces recruited locally were assigned to carry out a policy of terror against the Fur, Massalit, and Zaghawa populations, from which most of the insurgents were recruited. Killings, burning of villages, looting, torture and rape, caused huge population displacement. By the end of 2004, nearly two million people had been forced to flee their villages to take refuge in Chad or in towns controlled by the regular army. Since then, though the intensity of the attacks has diminished, violence continues to cause population displacement and destruction, as we are seeing today in southern Darfur.

Three years after hostilities broke out, more than 1.8 million people are still crowded into camps where health conditions are inadequate. Other than the WFP's general food distributions, these people have virtually no resources to ensure their survival. People cannot farm because of the insecurity that reigns outside the camps. At most, they can earn a little money selling firewood gathered in the nearby bush, but even there they risk being attacked.

Over the past year, the temporary breakdown of the food distribution system has consistently resulted in a significant increase of malnutrition. In Mornay, where 75,000 displaced people are housed, the number of admissions for severe malnutrition in the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital rose from 10 to 20 admissions per month between January and May 2005, and from 80 to 120 admissions per month between July and October. This increase of admissions is considerably greater than the seasonal fluctuations, and coincided with the delays in food distributions for the camps.

The Taiba camp in Zalingei, which shelters 5,200 displaced nomads who arrived in December 2005 following bloody inter-clan conflicts, experienced a similar situation. Following erratic and partial food distributions between December and March, the number of severely malnourished children admitted to the Zalingei hospital rose from two in January, to seven in February, and to 24 in March. In late March, according to a rapid survey conducted by MSF, the incidence of severe acute malnutrition was 3.6 percent in Taiba and global malnutrition was at 14 percent.

Following delays in distributions between July and October 2005, the number of admissions of severely malnourished children rose (for example, in the Mornay camps between July and October 2005, and in the Taiba camp in Zalingei since the beginning of 2006).

A widespread nutritional disaster now threatens all camps in Darfur. On April 28, 2006, the WFP announced that because of a lack of funding, it was forced to reduce by half the food rations distributed to the displaced population. As of May 1, they will receive no more than 1,050 kilocalories per day, meeting only half of their vital food needs. By late February, the WFP had received only four percent of the funds necessary to continue its operations in Sudan. Since then, the Sudanese and US governments have promised additional aid, but the WFP estimates that it will not be able to resume complete distributions before November 2006. In other words, the displaced population is now exposed to a serious risk of an acute nutritional crisis — or even famine.

The threat is even worse given that budgetary restrictions on food distributions also affect other vital assistance, like the provision of drinking water and hospital support. In addition, a critical time of year —in public health terms— is approaching. The months of July to October correspond with the lean period and the rainy season. The first is characterized by limited availability of cereal in the markets and among families who are still able to farm and who are usually in a position to help their neighbors. The rainy season is traditionally associated with an increase in diarrheic illnesses, which have detrimental effects on children's nutritional status and mortality.

This imminent disaster is neither an accident nor the result of Darfur's relegation to the rank of "forgotten crisis." It appears to be the result of a well-considered political decision. The international community's behavior suggests that it has decided to finance vital aid on the condition that a peace agreement be signed between the conflicting parties. The European Union (EU), which still provides only paltry aid to the WFP, indicated on May 4 that it would release 100 million euros upon the signing of a peace accord. Although the Sudanese government and one of the key rebel movements signed a peace agreement drafted by international mediators on May 5, EU aid has not yet arrived. While the US government has cut some funding for Sudan, $225 million in food aid is scheduled for Congressional authorization. Three days after the signing of the peace deal, President Bush appealed to Congress to quickly approve the aid package.

However, these latest financial pledges will not be able to prevent a disaster if food aid does not reach the displaced in the coming weeks. Assuming that the international community responds quickly to the appeals, the WFP, along with the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), estimates that it will take four to six months for the aid to reach its beneficiaries. In the meantime, the displaced families will have to survive on half the minimum food ration.

In the name of a peace process that is, at best, uncertain, the West has resigned itself, through its deliberate inaction, to the death of the population it claims to be saving. Though the international community may have legitimate concerns about the political crisis in Darfur, it should not condition humanitarian aid to a political agenda. Such policies will lead to extensive loss of life in the camps.

However, the worst can still be avoided if states quickly provide funding for vital aid and release special funds so that food aid can be transported immediately (by air, if necessary) to distribution sites. The displaced population in Darfur is in urgent need of full food rations as soon as possible.