Aid losing to hunger in Darfur, UN reports

Posted in Africa | 27-Dec-07 | Author: Jeffrey Gettleman| Source: International Herald Tribune

NAIROBI: Child malnutrition rates have increased sharply in Darfur, even though it is home to the world's largest aid operation, according to a new United Nations report.

The report showed that 16.1 percent of children affected by the conflict in Darfur, a vast, turbulent region in western Sudan, are acutely malnourished, compared with 12.9 percent last year. For the first time since 2004, the malnutrition rate, a gauge of the population's overall distress, has crossed what UN officials consider to be the emergency threshold.

Just as important, the increase has occurred despite the efforts of more than 12,000 relief workers in Darfur, drawing from an annual aid budget of about a billion dollars. Aid officials said they were concerned that even with all these resources, the situation for the people in Darfur seemed to be getting worse.

"This is a big deal," said Dr. Jean Rigal, the head of a branch of Doctors Without Borders in Sudan. "The system is not working as expected."

Rigal said he was not exactly sure why child malnutrition rates were rising. But he cited more insecurity, restricted access for relief workers and a fresh round of displacements because of tribal fighting.

"There are many hypotheses," he said.

The report seems to confirm what aid officials in Darfur have been saying for months: that the increasingly chaotic security situation, both inside the enormous camps of displaced people and in the desiccated rural areas that are very difficult to reach even in the best of times, has gotten to the point that it is hampering the delivery of much-needed emergency food. The report said there was an "urgent need to improve security conditions."

Sudanese officials said that the report exaggerated the problems in Darfur, and that the situation had actually improved recently.

Still, UN officials say the number of no-go zones has steadily increased this year, due to attacks on aid workers and food convoys. Some of these attacks seem to be the result of the fragmentation of the conflict, with rebel groups splintering into warring factions and formerly allied militias turning on each other.

To counter this, the UN and African Union are trying to send in an expanded, joint peacekeeping force. But that deployment has been delayed by bureaucratic battles with the Sudanese government and the reluctance of developed countries to supply high-tech equipment, like helicopters.

As a result, people in Darfur are beginning to lose hope, and that may be another factor taking a toll on their health, several aid officials said.

"There is a psychological effect here," said one aid official in Sudan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals from the Sudanese government. "These people have been in these camps for years now, and the energy that was around a few years ago and the hopes that this situation might be over soon and people could go home - all that's gone now."

He said that depression could affect how mothers care for their children, and that the overall malaise in the camps would make poor health conditions worse.

Darfur has been the site of a humanitarian crisis since 2003, when rebels frustrated at being marginalized attacked government forces. The Sudanese government responded by arming tribal militias to wipe out the rebels and the civilians in the area. Villages were burned, countless women were raped and more than 200,000 people have died, by conservative estimates.

From the beginning, the UN has used child malnutrition rates to assess the direness of the situation in Darfur. In 2004, when the conflict was raging, with waves of marauding horsemen sweeping the countryside, the acute malnutrition rate among affected children was 21.8 percent.

Then, in 2005, as hundreds of millions of dollars of resources were poured into the region, that rate dropped to 11.9 percent. It rose to 12.9 percent last year. The United Nations considers 15 percent to be the emergency threshold.

The new UN report was based on information collected in August and September from thousands of Darfurians affected by the conflict, including those living in squalid camps (the United Nations estimates roughly 2.2 million people have been displaced by fighting). The report cited "consistently poor infant and young child feeding practices" and a "deterioration in the overall food security situation."

The report also showed that the percentage of Darfurians growing their own crops had decreased this year compared with last. The people surveyed said that insecurity and a lack of access to their farms were the main reasons, though Sudanese officials have hypothesized that some Darfurians may have simply grown dependent on food aid and chosen to stop farming.

Malnutrition was highest among young children, between 6 months and 29 months old, and in the North Darfur state, which is sparsely populated and very dry.

But the report was not all bad news. It highlighted improvements in access to clean water and more people using latrines. And the rate of severe malnutrition - the worst cases - remained the same as last year at 1.9 percent.

Malnutrition rates are a highly sensitive subject in Sudan, and Sudanese government officials have objected to some of these findings, taking issue with the survey methodology and the overall characterization of the problem.

"It's true, there is a gap of food in Darfur and the conflict is not settled yet," said Rabie Atti, a government spokesman. "But from our information, the situation is better now than before."