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WHO: Coming Lean Season in Sudan Could Trigger Catastrophic Hunger

FILE - People from states of Khartoum and al-Jazira, displaced by the ongoing conflict in Sudan between the army and paramilitaries, wait to receive aid from a charity organisation in Gedaref on Dec. 30, 2023.
FILE - People from states of Khartoum and al-Jazira, displaced by the ongoing conflict in Sudan between the army and paramilitaries, wait to receive aid from a charity organisation in Gedaref on Dec. 30, 2023.

The World Health Organization says the coming lean season in Sudan could trigger catastrophic levels of hunger and widespread illness and death from infectious disease among a malnourished, famished population.

“It has been 10 months since conflict erupted in Sudan, plunging the country into a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions,” said Peter Graaff, acting WHO representative to Sudan.

Speaking in Cairo Tuesday, Graaff told journalists in Geneva about 25 million people, more than half of Sudan’s population, need humanitarian assistance. Among them, he said 18 million are facing acute hunger, including five million at emergency levels of hunger who are just one step away from starvation.

“There is concern that the upcoming lean season will lead to catastrophic levels of hunger in the worst affected areas,” he said.

“In Darfur alone, 200,000 children are projected to suffer from life-threatening hunger this year. Hunger weakens the body’s defenses and opens the door to disease and increases morbidity and mortality,” he said.

The World Health Organization warns time is of the essence because the lean season is just six short weeks away. That is the period of the year when food stocks are at their lowest ahead of the next harvest.

Between April and July, Graaff warns Sudan’s already severe food security situation will worsen amid escalating fighting and months of deprivation as hunger will have weakened the ability to stave off the ill effects of disease.

“The people of Sudan are facing a life-or-death situation due to the continued violence, insecurity, and limited access to essential health services and supplies,” he said.

“Malnourished people, particularly pregnant women and children, experience worse outcomes of disease; malnourished children are at increased risk of dying from illnesses like diarrhea, pneumonia, and measles, especially in a setting where they lack access to life-saving health services,” he said.

UNICEF estimates 3.5 million children are projected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year, including more than 700,000 who are expected to suffer from severe, acute malnutrition, the deadliest form of the condition.

It says more than 70 percent of health facilities in conflict-affected areas are no longer functional, and two-thirds of the population lack access to health care.

“The situation in Sudan is therefore a perfect storm as the health system is hardly functional,” Graaff observed.

“The childhood immunization program is breaking down, and infectious diseases are spreading,” he said, noting that thousands of cases of cholera and dengue have been reported, as well as more than 1.2 million cases of malaria and other infectious conditions.

A power grab between two rival generals from the Sudanese Armed Forces and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces on April 15 plunged Sudan into a deadly conflict.

Since then, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reports nearly eight million people have been displaced, 6.1 million inside the country and 1.8 million into neighboring countries, making Sudan the largest displacement crisis globally.

The Norwegian Refugee Council says Chad has received the largest number of Sudanese refugees, nearly 700,000, placing “an unbearable strain on one of the world’s poorest countries.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, Jan Egeland, secretary general of the NRC who is visiting camps and the Adre informal settlement in eastern Chad this week, said that the world has seemingly forgotten the survivors of Sudan’s brutal war.

“Here in Chad, I have heard horrifying testimonies of deliberate violence and atrocities. Families fleeing neighboring Darfur have witnessed executions, rape, indiscriminate shelling, burning of camps, and massacres—just because of their ethnicity. And yet many survivors have been utterly abandoned,” he said.

“They are forced to live in desperate, undignified conditions, under makeshift tents, lacking even basic assistance. How is it that these survivors have been so forgotten?” he asked.

“The war is shattering an entire region in the heart of Africa,” he warned. “There must be a more effective diplomatic and humanitarian international response.”

Martin Griffiths, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, asked similar questions at the launch of the U.N.’s $4.1 billion appeal for Sudan last week.

He warned that countries were ignoring the conflict in Sudan at their peril.

“Sudan geographically poses a threat to destabilizing parts of Africa…It is something which we cannot allow to continue the way it is now,” he said.

“We have to invest in political diplomacy. We have to invest in humanitarian efforts. We have to invest in the region as well,” he said.

Unfortunately, the WHOs Peter Graaff said, “There seems to be little hope of a political solution in sight” and little ability to reach hardest conflict-hit zones, such as Darfur and Kordofan, with the humanitarian aid they so desperately need.

“We stand ready to provide life-saving health services and supplies. But for this, we need safe and unhindered access,” he said.

“There is so much more that can be done than what is being done right now. For this we need the international community’s commitment.”