Darfur Mortality Update: July 30, 2004; Current data for total mortality from violence, malnutrition, and disease
Eric Reeves, 30 July 2004
There have been two recent estimates of total mortality in Darfur, both many times higher than the previous UN figure of 10,000. This latter figure was first offered, without accompanying explanation, in March 2004 and has remained unchanged for the past four months. Unfortunately both new figures also come with too little explanation of statistical methodology or of the data actually used in calculating mortality. Moreover, both estimates continue to understate the degree of human destruction in Darfur. For a collation of the most comprehensive data available from humanitarian organizations operating in Darfur, as well as epidemiological data governing the mortality projections of the US Agency for International Development, suggests that current mortality exceeds 150,000 dead.
This figure is of course an estimate—a tenuous extrapolation from the very limited data available, and cannot be confirmed or made more precise until security in Darfur permits much more comprehensive statistical sampling. The margin of error is very wide. But the figure offered here does attempt to include populations within camps for the displaced as well as those outside the camps. It includes not only the 1.3 million that the UN estimates are internally displaced in Darfur, but the more than 200,000 who have fled to Chad. It also attempts to take some cognizance of the larger total population of African tribal groups in Darfur—a population that is very seldom referred to globally in any statistical context.
In other words, the large mortality number offered here implicitly presumes (as do US AID mortality projections) that our focus must be on the entire population at risk in Darfur, not simply those who have been counted as displaced or assessed as “war-affected” (many organizations on the ground, overwhelmed by the critical tasks at hand, have simply stopped counting or registering new displaced persons). For there is a good deal of evidence that the estimated figure of 1.3 million internally displaced persons in Darfur is far below the actual number; there is also a good deal of evidence that the number of “war-affected” persons has grown to well in excess of the 2.2 million announced by the UN, the US, and the European Union in Geneva almost two months ago (June 3, 2004).
The population of Darfur is roughly 6.5 million; over 4 million are from the “African”/”non-Arab” tribal groups that have been so relentlessly targeted by Khartoum and its Arab militia allies. These people make up the overwhelming majority of those killed, displaced, and at risk. Thus the unstated but highly troubling implication of a figure of 1.5 million displaced (internally and into Chad) is that more than 2.5 million have not been displaced—are somehow still living in their villages and smaller towns, as well as the larger towns of Darfur. Given the massive scale of destruction of African villages—now clearly evident from recent satellite photography and from numerous reports on the systematic nature of African village destruction in the rural areas of all three states in Darfur Province—a figure of 2.5 million “non-displaced” persons seems thoroughly untenable.
This is the context in which to assess the meaning of the June 3, 2004 estimate of 2.2 million “war-affected” persons. Given the global population numbers for the Darfur region, the number of “war-affected” persons must be accelerating quickly, and indeed must now far exceed 2.2 million. Any surviving foodstocks are rapidly disappearing or have already disappeared; host families for many of the displaced persons now find themselves without food; and the ability to forage for the foods normally eaten in times of severe food scarcity is meaningless given the continuing predations of Khartoum’s proxy militia force, the Janjaweed. Insecurity has hopelessly compromised the superb coping skills of the rural African tribal populations of Darfur. Overall levels of morbidity and malnutrition within the growing “war-affected” population, likely well in excess of 2.5 million, are climbing extremely rapidly.
 UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland declared on July 23, 2004 that the mortality figure for Darfur “could be as high as 50,000” (Agence France-Presse, July 23, 2004). Dismayingly, there was no statistical explanation offered or differentiation within the overall figure between deaths from violence and deaths from malnutrition and disease. Moreover, Egeland’s statistical preface to his estimate—“Among the one million people [who are displaced]” (Agence France-Presse, July 23, 2004)—is a dismayingly inaccurate characterization of the number of displaced persons in Darfur and Chad: the number is certainly at the very least 50% higher than the one Egeland offered as context for his estimate. As a consequence of this casual but highly significant understatement of a key figure in Darfur’s crisis, it is difficult to see this mortality estimate as the result of a rigorous statistical analysis.
A much more likely explanation is that Egeland’s figure is simply a minimal (i.e., institutionally acceptable within the UN) increase, serving Egeland’s larger and more urgent purpose of making clear that things are continuing to deteriorate badly in Darfur:
“‘There is a false impression now that things are improving in Darfur because we, the humanitarian community, are able to deploy much stronger than before,’ Mr Egeland said. ‘The outlook at the moment is actually bleak, the deaths are increasing,’ he said.” (Agence France-Presse, July 23, 2004)
 The US Agency for International Development yesterday (July 29, 2004) estimated that 80,000 have died in Darfur (Deutsche Presse Agentur [dpa], July 29, 2004). This estimate is a good deal more compelling, largely because it does differentiate between mortality from violence and mortality from disease and malnutrition.
Even the US AID figure is likely low, however, particularly in its estimate of deaths from violence (given as 30,000). At the same time, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the US AID estimate of deaths from disease and malnutrition (given as 50,000) is appropriate for the present; this may even be the figure Egeland had in mind when he offered his own estimate.
But the US AID figure for violent deaths seems to ignore the implications of the only publicly available study to date on this subject, conducted by Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the epidemiological research center “Epicenter.” The June 21, 2004 report (“Emergency in Darfur, Sudan: No Relief in Sight”) studied violent deaths in West Darfur State, and arrived at a key finding:
“A recent survey conducted by MSF and the epidemiological research center Epicentre in the town of Mornay, West Darfur State, where nearly 80,000 people have sought refuge, found that one in 20 people were killed in scorched earth attacks on 111 villages from September 2003 until February 2004. Adult men were the primary victims, but women and children were also killed. Today, one in five children in the camp are severely malnourished while irregular and insufficient food distributions do not come close to meeting the basic needs of people weakened by violence, displacement, and deprivation.” (Doctors Without Border/Medecins Sans Frontieres, “Emergency in Darfur, Sudan: No Relief in Sight,” June 21, 2004; release at http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/pr/2004/06-21-2004.shtml).)
If we make the very conservative assumption that the Mornay region has been especially violent, and that the 1 in 20 figure overstates by 50% the global death rate for armed killings in Darfur, this still implies (for a crudely estimated total average displaced population of 1.2 million, including refugees in Chad) that over 40,000 people were violently killed between September 2003 and February 2004 (this represents a weekly casualty figure of approximately 1,500).
In the five months (22 weeks) since the end of February, violent killings have continued to be reported on a very wide-scale throughout Darfur, especially February to April, subsiding recently only because the destruction of African villages is now largely completed. Even so, an African Union fact-finding mission declared today there has been continued significant deterioration in the security situation in Darfur in recent weeks (Reuters [Accra], July 30, 2004), and accounts of highly destructive Janjaweed assaults also continue to be reported throughout Darfur. CBS News and Associated Press report today:
“‘The [Janjaweed] attackers looted the market and killed civilians [in the village of Suleia, West Darfur], in some cases, by chaining them and burning them alive,’ according to the [African Union monitoring team] report, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday.” (CBS News and Associated Press, July 30, 2004)
Many people were of course killed violently before September 2003 (the insurgency conflict broke out in February 2003; Janjaweed attacks on civilians accelerated dramatically in the late spring/early summer of 2003).
All of these data aggregated (including the implied weekly casualty rate) suggest a very approximate figure of 80,000 killed violently in the course of the war.
If we accept the US Agency for International Development figure of 50,000 dead from disease and malnutrition, and the implications of the MSF study of violent death, we arrive at a total of 130,000 dead. This writer estimated on July 15, 2004 that the total mortality in Darfur was 135,000. The difference here is well within the very wide margin of error for such statistical calculations. At the same time, US AID’s “Projected Mortality Rates in Darfur, 2004-2005” ( http://www.usaid.gov/locations/sub-saharan_africa/sudan/cmr_darfur.pdf) suggests a daily mortality rate that has now reached 10 persons per day per 10,000 of affected population. Assuming an affected population of over 2 million (people presently in urgent need of food and medical assistance), this suggests a daily death rate of 2,000 human beings (see July 15, 2004 analysis by this writer of the population figure appropriate to deploy in this statistical projection; available upon request). These data aggregated suggest that total mortality in Darfur as of July 30, 2004 is over 150,000.
[Note: US AID’s “Projected Mortality Rates in Darfur, 2004-2005,” which projects both mortality and Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM), continues to be borne out in surveys of nutrition throughout Darfur. Indeed, malnutrition is tracking higher than US AID projections. Studies of particular note include:  an assessment by Action Contre la Faim (ACF) in the Abu Shouk camp for the internally displaced [North Darfur], indicating Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rates of 39 percent and Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) of 9.6 percent (July 2004);  Save the Children study (June 17, 2004) of malnutrition and food insecurity in Malha, North Darfur (assessment teams found an acute crisis in nutritional status with GAM rates of 33 percent and SAM rates of 5.4 percent); and  a nutritional study by Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres during April and May 2004 (“On the Brink of Mass Starvation,” May 20, 2004), conducted at Garsila, Mukjar, Bindissi, Deleij, and Um Kher (West Darfur). The study revealed that “global acute malnutrition affects 21.5% of the population while 3.2% suffer from severe acute malnutrition. The mortality rate for children under five years of age is 5.2 deaths per 10,000 people per day while the rate for those over five years of age is 3.6).”
Global Acute Malnutrition and human mortality correlate extremely highly in famine conditions.]
There are many who are skeptical of the high mortality figure offered here. Where skepticism can be explained, assumptions reasonably questioned, statistical inferences challenged, data shown to be inaccurate, this writer welcomes responses and corrections. Many of those skeptical are apparently in the UN, and their data would be especially welcome. But perhaps it is appropriate to point out that for over four months many within the UN have contented themselves with a figure of 10,000 dead for all of Darfur—for more than 17 months of extraordinary violent and destructive conflict, including mass executions, and involving huge numbers of displaced and endangered persons, living in highly traumatic circumstances. What accounts for this dramatic and consequential understatement of human loss of life?
It is sadly the case that we learn too much about the inadequacy of UN statistical and logistical comprehension of the Darfur crisis from a very recent comment by Dr. David Nabarro, head of UN World Health Organization (WHO) “Health Crises Operations”:
“Dr. Nabarro says WHO did not think the situation in Darfur would become as desperate as it is. He says the agency underestimated the difficulty of getting enough water supplies and of improving sanitation facilities in the camps.” (interview with Voice of America, July 18, 2004)
This is simply disgraceful incompetence. Indeed, it is clear that various of the UN organizations—including the UN World Health Organization, the UN World Food Program, the UN High Commission for Refugees, and the UN High Commission for Human Rights—have at times performed poorly in responding to Darfur, and at times extremely poorly. All who are working to mitigate the Darfur crisis must hope that this does not continue to translate into the promulgation of figures that are clearly untenable.
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