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Aid Agencies Fear for Survival of Sudan’s Blue Nile Refugees

Women who recently crossed over from Sudan's Blue Nile state with little food or water fill jerry cans at a watering hole called km 18, June 20, 2012 (H. McNeish/VOA)
UPPER NILE STATE - South Sudan, Around 35,000 people have poured over the border to South Sudan from Sudan's war-torn Blue Nile state in recent weeks. Increasingly malnourished, exhausted and sick, they are arriving to overcrowded and ill-prepared sites that aid agencies fear could run out of water and be cut off by rains very soon.

At a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) near the border with Sudan, concerned mothers sit on a mat cradling frail babies that wail from thirst and malnutrition.

Anima Hassan Omer is caring for her seriously malnourished and dehydrated granddaughter Khalifa.

The baby’s mother went missing on the road when she went to fetch water, after the family fled shelling, bomber planes and soldiers who came to their village called Kukur in Blue Nile’s Bau County.

“When we came from Kukur, we brought a small amount of food and a little water. For five days we had no food-we ate the leaves of the tree and drank any water we found on the road-the baby drank the same water. The child arrived here very poorly and now, after six days here the diarrhea is still running. She is only eight-months-old,” Omer recalled.

Omer says that when the family left Kukur, they brought only a small amount of grain and a little bit of water. She says for five days they ate leaves from the trees and drank any water they found on the road.

She says that Khalifa, just eight-months-old, also survived only on dirty water and arrived at this site extremely ill.

In the searing 40-degree heat on a thankfully overcast day, mostly women and elderly people shuffle in or are sometimes carried by relatives to another mat where aid workers pour out cup after cup of rehydrating fluids.

MSF Doctor Erna Rijnierse says last week, the clinic treated 500 people, more than half of whom had diarrhea. Half way through this week, there have been 900 consultations.

A malnourished baby in a hospital run by Doctors Without borders in Jamam, Upper Nile state, June 20, 2012 (Hannah McNeish/VOA).
A malnourished baby in a hospital run by Doctors Without borders in Jamam, Upper Nile state, June 20, 2012 (Hannah McNeish/VOA).
Rijnierse says the lack of water is compounding problems of dehydration and worsening acute child malnutrition among under-five-year-olds. “First of all, there is a lack of hygiene, there is a lack of latrines, there is a lack of hand washing points. There is however treated water that MSF is providing," she stated. "On the other hand, people have been having diarrhea for quite a long time and one can imagine that if you are already vulnerable, you have very little to eat, you have been a refugee for over four weeks, if you suffer from diarrhea, then it is quite easy to cross the line between being moderate or being a normal kid into severe kid malnutrition”

Eighteen-year-old Amin Anesem Chapa says she left Bau county with 25 family members two months ago.

She says there is not enough to eat and four of the eight children have diarrhea. “We left because of the war and to get an education. But this situation here is not good," she said. "There is not enough to eat and four of the eight children have diarrhea”

​Doctors Without Borders also says the lack of shelter and mosquito nets and the start of the six-month rains are bringing in the first cases of malaria and respiratory diseases.

Aid agencies are concerned that water could dry up within a week’s time if no more is found, while rains could cut off access to aid agencies and water trucks.

Having expected 75,000 refugees and now dealing with more than 100,000, a new camp is being set up, while existing camps are overcrowded and have suffered water shortages for months.

Doctors Without Borders is rushing to try to vaccinate 90 percent of the young children in this camp against measles and is also preparing for a potential cholera outbreak.

MSF coordinator for Upper Nile refugees Patrick Swartenbroexk says time is running out for these refugees who are facing dire health problems if aid agencies do not provide basic needs.

“Worst case scenario; we will have a mortality rate very high, maybe with some outbreaks starting because the density of population is very high, hygiene is very bad, not enough water," said Swartenbroexk. "That would be catastrophic.”

UNHCR has said that it is expecting up to 15,000 more people to cross the border in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, aid agencies are rushing to try to provide more shelter, sanitation, health services, and water to stop people dying from dehydration.