Seasonal rains are among several factors to have exacerbated the crisis sparked by the sudden flight of tens of thousands of civilians from the disputed Sudanese region of Abyei, say aid workers, who point to both short- and long-term repercussions.
“Most of the roads in Southern Sudan are not passable during the rains and so that will make the movement of food difficult,” World Food Programme (WFP) spokeswoman Amor Almagro told IRIN.
This is the second large-scale exodus from Abyei in as many months. In March, some 25,000 people fled the town amid clashes.
Earlier in the year, WFP had prepositioned some 27,000MT of food in Southern Sudan in anticipation of the rains, as part of plans to feed up to 1.5 million people in 2011.
“With what is happening in Abyei now, we will have to consider moving some 2,000MT of food from our logistical hub in El Obeid [North Sudan] to an operational base we are setting up in Wunrok in [Southern Sudan] Warrap state,” said Almagro.
“We have seen thousands of people – mainly women and children – carrying bags on their heads, or sitting on mats on the side of the road, exhausted by hours of walking. The populations of both Abyei and Agok [40km to the south] have been displaced and are spread out in several different areas: near Turalei, near Mayen-Abun and on the road to Agok,” said MSF head of mission Raphael Gorgeu.
“There are severe signs of dehydration among many children who are on the move. We are very concerned about the harsh conditions the displaced population has to endure on the roads. Their health condition can deteriorate rapidly if assistance is not delivered promptly,” he added.
The International Organization for Migration, which is among many agencies responding to the crisis, noted that “tracking and assessing the displaced population has been difficult because many people are still on the move or are hiding in the bush. The continued heavy rainfall has made some roads impassable and this has impeded access to areas where IDPs may be sheltering.”
On 21 May, Khartoum government forces took control of Abyei town, after clashes with soldiers from the soon-to-be-independent south.
Straddling the border, Abyei is supposed to be under a form of joint administration until a referendum determines its permanent status. Delays in this landmark vote have heightened tensions in the region.
For Andrews Atta-Asamoah, senior researcher of the African Conflict Prevention Programme (ACPP) at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), the political priority now “is for the international community to insist that the North withdraws from Abyei and reinstate the Abyei Administrative Council. This will pave the way for the thousands of displaced people to return and for normality to resume.”
Food stability concerns
“Longer-term food stability is a major concern,” added Almagro. “This is the planting season and if people are not able to plant [because they are displaced] they will face shortages down the line and will require assistance for a much longer period of time than this lean season, when food from the previous harvest has run out.”
WFP had been supplying food to some 60,000 people in Abyei. Almagro said 800MT of food, enough to feed 50,000 people for a month, had been looted from the agency’s warehouse in Abyei town.
Facilities run by other UN agencies and NGOs in the town have also been targeted. “Items looted include medical supplies, surgical equipment, non-food items and water and hygiene equipment. These supplies had been dispatched to Abyei town in recent weeks to respond to urgent needs of the town residents and the rural population of surrounding villages,” the UN Country Team in Sudan stated.
The displaced need urgent assistance, the statement added. “In Turalei, 130km from Abyei town, 15,000 displaced people are living in the open. An additional 4,000 people have sought safety in near-by Mayen Abun village. Unknown numbers are believed to have fled into the bush between Agok and Turalei.”
While an emergency response in sectors such as shelter, food, health, nutrition and water and sanitation is accelerating, “there are concerns that fuel is short and that nearby airstrips may become unusable due to heavy rains”, the statement added.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “two out of three main [fuel] supply routes from the north into the south have been blocked since the beginning of May.
“A key priority for partners has been to establish the whereabouts of people who have fled to enable delivery of assistance. As of 26 May, humanitarian partners estimate that more than 30,000 people have made their way south. Reports of new arrivals continue,” OCHA’s statement added.
It also noted that while no outbreaks of communicable diseases had been reported as of 26 May, “there are concerns that the wet weather conditions increase the incidence of illnesses such as respiratory infections and water-borne diseases”.