The Darfur region of western Sudan is site of the world’s largest humanitarian operation; it is also on the verge of famine. With an extraordinary annual budget, and almost four years of large-scale presence, the Darfur relief operation will enter the coming rainy season witnessing staggering numbers of malnourished civilians, particularly children. Much of the evidence for this impending catastrophe has been available for some time, but the brutal regime in Khartoum has used its bureaucratic powers and threats of humanitarian expulsion to intimidate both UN and international nongovernmental relief organizations (INGO’s). The most culpable silence is that of the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, lead agency for reporting on malnutrition in Darfur. This is the organization that has calculated it is better to allow critical humanitarian truths to be concealed than to risk offending a genocidal regime that has the perverse power to control humanitarian access.
To be sure, there is a difficult balance that must be struck: self-censorship is a grim task that must be mastered to some degree by all who work on the ground in Darfur. But UNICEF has been guilty of a shameful cowardice in failing to report on rising malnutrition, already at highly alarming levels among children under five, levels that may double in the coming months according to knowledgeable UN officials. Much of this could have been known months ago, but UN officials have also confirmed that at least seven nutrition surveys conducted since August 2007 still await Khartoum’s permission to be released. The regime’s demand that humanitarians wait many months before sharing studies of malnutrition undermines the organizational ability to mobilize appropriate responses in timely fashion.
Malnutrition rates, especially for children under five, already exceed emergency thresholds in much of Darfur, as they did more than half a year ago when UNICEF last oversaw a published malnutrition study. This is not surprising, given a range of reports and anecdotal evidence going back to the beginning of the year. The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) has already significantly cut rations for many recipients, inevitably accelerating malnutrition. At any one moment, WFP now has only half the food tonnage required on the road corridor from Port Sudan to Darfur, over 1,000 kilometers to the west. This has led WFP to announce recently that rations will be cut more severely in a matter of days—to 50% of the kilo-calories required to sustain human life. Insecurity is responsible for this dramatic decline in transport capacity; and Khartoum’s refusal to facilitate deployment of a UN-authorized protection force is the primary reason this and other critical humanitarian corridors can’t be secured. WFP also lacks funds for its vital air service, the primary means for aid workers to travel to program sites amidst the desperate insecurity of Darfur.
Humanitarians on the ground report an explosion in food prices—500 per cent for cereals in one location—an ominous harbinger of famine. WFP also indicates that it is falling well short of pre-positioning adequate food-stocks prior to the rainy season, which coincides with the traditional “hunger gap” between spring planting and fall harvest. Many locations in Darfur become completely inaccessible during the heavy rainy season, and food must be in place before wadis (dry river beds) become raging torrents and the terrain a sea of mud.
Last fall’s harvests were disastrous, particularly in North and South Darfur (three-quarters of the region’s population), and there is little evidence that next fall’s harvests will be better. Khartoum’s brutal Arab militia, the Janjaweed, keep African farmers from cultivating their lands through violent threats, and increasingly destroy crops before harvest. Growing numbers of Darfuri civilians have given up trying to fashion a living in such threatening circumstances and have migrated to camps for displaced persons that are already overcrowded, putting yet greater demands on an insufficient food supply. Even so, at any one time there may be hundreds of thousands of people beyond the reach of WFP. More than 3 million people are dependent to varying degrees on food assistance. The gains in addressing malnutrition achieved since major humanitarian efforts began in 2004 are all being lost.
Last summer a collaborative effort by UN agencies found that Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) was already above emergency thresholds: 16 percent as of September 2007; for children 6 – 29 months old the rate was 21.3 percent. There is perhaps no more sensitive barometer of overall humanitarian conditions than GAM rates for children under five. Yet Khartoum is deliberately delaying the collection and dissemination of new GAM data. Indeed, surveys are sometimes simply denied. The wali (governor) of North Darfur State has arrogated to himself and a committee of self-appointed “experts” the right to vet malnutrition studies prior to release; he also unilaterally decided that nutrition surveys will be allowed only from May to June and October to November—however urgent humanitarians may find such surveys for their work and planning at other times.
Despite these restrictions, designed to compromise humanitarian efforts, the UN says little or nothing. Ameerah Haq, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, and UNICEF personnel, with primary responsibility for reporting on malnutrition, are the most culpable, but they have too much company, including in New York. INGO’s can’t be more assertive than the UN, but privately they convey information revealing an extremely ominous situation—and the urgency only grows.
Ultimately, of course, responsibility for standing up to Khartoum and holding the regime accountable for its many previous agreements to facilitate humanitarian assistance, as well as to permit unfettered deployment of UN-authorized security forces, belongs to the UN and powerful member states, especially the Security Council’s Permanent Five members. Theirs is the most unforgivable silence, and if it continues will signal acquiescence in the deaths of further hundreds of thousands of Darfuri civilians.
[Eric Reeves is author of “A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide”]