Sudan On Precipice Of Famine ‘Beyond Imagination’, Says Outgoing UN Aid Chief

Sudan is facing horror “beyond imagination”, the outgoing UN aid chief has warned, with 750,000 people under imminent threat of famine and with conditions in danger of worsening even further.

The British diplomat Martin Griffiths will retire from his job as the UN’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs at a time when famine on a historic scale is looming over Sudan and Gaza.

Griffiths told the Guardian that while Gaza is the subject of intense media coverage and diplomatic effort (albeit unsuccessful so far), another – potentially much larger – human-made tragedy is unfolding in Sudan, largely out of the world’s sight, and with little sign of diplomatic progress.

Statistics published on Tuesday by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) showed that 495,000 Palestinians in Gaza face catastrophic conditions, defined as an “extreme lack of food, starvation, and exhaustion of coping capacities”, over the coming six months.

Over the same period, the panel of experts estimated that 755,262 people in Sudan face the same “phase 5” catastrophic conditions, while a further 8.5 million Sudanese face a “phase 4” emergency, defined as a state where “acute malnutrition and disease levels are excessively high, and the risk of hunger-related death is rapidly increasing”.

“These are staggering numbers. It’s beyond imagination,” said Griffiths, a British diplomat. “I think historically it is a huge moment.”

He agreed with estimates by top US officials that without a change of course in terms of access for humanitarian relief and international donations, the outcome in Sudan could be even worse than the historic famine in Ethiopia, which killed 1 million people between 1983 and 1985, according to UN estimates.

“Sudan is comparable in horror, in potential tragedy, if not worse. But it’s not moving in the right direction, and it’s not getting international attention on the level it should,” Griffith said.

“There was massive international attention [on the Ethiopian famine], and massive generosity … whereas in Sudan, partly because journalists aren’t given visas to get to places, it’s very difficult to get the story out.”

The 2024 Sudan humanitarian needs and response plan, launched at the end of last year, asked for $2.7bn to address the crisis in Sudan, but as of this week, it was less than 17% funded. Griffiths said that is about the average global response rate for humanitarian appeals around the world.

“Tragically, it’s not that unusual these days,” he said. “It’s partly because the needs have grown, but the funding hasn’t.”

The two rival generals driving the civil war, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sudanese armed forces (SAF) and the country’s de facto ruler, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), have shrugged off mediation efforts and both sides are blocking access for food and other humanitarian aid.

Crucially for the Darfur region in western Sudan, the centre of the looming famine, the SAF is not letting aid across the Adré crossing from Chad. Griffiths said diplomatic efforts were under way to try to resolve the blockage, perhaps with an inspection regime to guarantee that arms were not entering Sudan alongside food aid. But he said that time was running out to avoid the worst-case scenarios.

“The worry is that we are not going to get the seeds in to do the planting season, and it’s going to get worse,” he said.

In Gaza, Griffiths noted that the numbers of Palestinians facing catastrophic famine had halved since March, when those at risk numbered more than a million people, but he also warned the improvement could be shortlived.

He said: “I suspect the reason for [the improvement] is because we did get in some quantities of humanitarian assistance] in the months of March and April. So aid works, is the story here.”

“People can be rescued from famine and starvation and disease if aid is made available, and actually can be rescued quite quickly back from the abyss.”

Since the limited opening of crossings into Gaza in early spring, however, Israel has launched an offensive on Rafah, the southernmost city in the coastal strip. That sent more than a million people fleeing into a no man’s land in central Gaza; closed the main access point for aid, the Rafah crossing; and accelerated the spread of gang violence and insecurity, which has emerged as the biggest obstacle to distributing food.

“We have now gone down to practically nothing,” Griffiths said.

He added that although criminality and mob looting had become major problems inside Gaza, it did not absolve Israel of responsibility as the occupying power.

“The Israelis have an obligation under international laws to provide security for humanitarian aid, so it’s not right to say they’re not the problem,” Griffiths said. “They are part of the process that is needed to ensure the security of humanitarian deliveries.”

He said UN aid convoys would never ask for Israeli military escorts, but he said there were other things Israel could do. He pointed out that a deconfliction centre has still not been set up to bring aid organisations and the Israeli military together to ensure convoys are not bombed. The creation of such a centre was one of the promises made by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, to Joe Biden in a phone call in April.

“It never quite happened,” he said, adding: “We’re not asking for anything out of turn. We’re asking for standard things that we ask of parties in conflict situations anywhere. It’s not rocket science, but it needs to be done.”

A US official confirmed that the absence of a deconfliction centre was the biggest obstacle to distributing aid inside Gaza.

“The looting as well as the recent violence is a factor. But overall, I think the bigger concern for us is getting those movements coordinated in a way that the UN can function more effectively,” the official said. “[The Israelis] haven’t come through on that promise yet.”

To improve internal security within Gaza, Griffiths also advocated talks with the leaders of the region’s big clans who have become more powerful with the collapse of the Hamas-run government.

“It has to be part of the puzzle,” he said, adding that the big families need to be consulted “to make sure that we understand the dynamics of their communities and what’s happening in these places”.


The Guardian

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