Experts warn that 755,000 people at risk of famine in the coming months in war-torn Sudan

CAIRO (AP) — International experts portrayed a grim picture for war-torn Sudan in a report Thursday warning that 755,000 people are facing famine in the coming months, amid relentless clashes between rival generals.

The fighting has created a hunger catastrophe at a scale not seen since the Darfur conflict in the early 2000s, senior United Nations officials said.

The latest findings come from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or IPC, an initiative set up in 2004 during the famine in Somalia that now includes more than a dozen U.N. agencies, aid groups, governments and other bodies.

The report said that 8.5 million people are facing extreme food shortages after 14 months of conflict in Sudan and that hunger has spread to the capital Khartoum and Jazira province, once Sudan’s breadbasket.

“It is truly heartbreaking to see food scarcity and deprivation on the rise,” said John Makoni, a national director for World Vision, one of the largest aid groups working in Sudan. “We have a looming catastrophic situation that is quickly approaching.”

The northeastern African country descended into chaos in April last year. That’s when simmering tensions between the country’s military, led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and a notorious paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces, commanded by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, exploded into open fighting in Khartoum and elsewhere in the country.

The devastating conflict has killed more than 14,000 people and wounded 33,000 others, according to the United Nations, but rights activists say the toll could be much higher.

The conflict created the world’s largest displacement crisis with more than 11 million people forced to flee their homes. Human rights experts working for the United Nations said that both warring sides used food and starvation as a war weapon.

The report on hunger said people facing the highest level of starvation in the coming months are in 10 provinces, including Khartoum; the Darfur and Kordofan regions; and the provinces of Blue Nile and Jazira. The number was zero in June 2023 and it surged to 755,000 over the past year, it said.

“The conflict has not only triggered mass displacement and disruption of supply routes, market systems and agricultural production, it has also severely limited access to essential humanitarian assistance, exacerbating an already dire situation,” the report said.

Another 8.5 million people are classified in the second worst level of starvation, or Phase 4, meaning that the risk of hunger-related death is rapidly increasing, the IPC report said. Those people are facing extreme food shortages, acute malnutrition and excessively high disease levels, it added.

Overall, 25.6 million people, more than half of the country’s 47 million population, face “crisis or worse conditions” between June and September. It warned about a risk of famine in 14 areas “if the conflict escalates further, including through increased mobilization of local militias.”

“The situation is especially critical for populations trapped in areas affected by direct conflict and/or insecurity and lack of protection,” the report said. It referred to Darfur, Kordofan, Khartoum and Jazira where fighting raged for months.

The current crisis — unlike the Darfur conflict in the early 2000s — impacts the whole country, and threatens to destabilize the entire horn of Africa region, said Cindy McCain, head of the World Food Program.

“We urgently need a massive expansion of humanitarian access and funding so we can scale-up our relief operations, and halt Sudan’s slide into a humanitarian catastrophe,” she said.

The conflict has wrecked the country and created a crisis that will impact its future for generations. At least 17 million children are out of school, since over 90% of the country’s schools are closed because of the war. About 4 million children under 5 suffer from acute malnutrition, with 730,000 of those projected to be at imminent risk of dying, said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.

“The consequences of the violence, of the displacement of the, you know, lack of food, the lack of security is just devastating for women and children in Sudan,” Russell said in an interview after her trip to Sudan earlier this week. She said UNICEF needs $840 million to continue its operations and help Sudan’s children. The U.N.’s $4.1 billion humanitarian appeal for this year was only 16% funded as of June.

“It’s important for the international community to realize that we have to get more resources to Sudan,” she said. “But we also need to push the parties, hopefully, to peace. That’s really, at the end of the day. what we need here.”

The conflict has been marked by atrocities, including rape, gang rape and ethnic-motivated attacks, which rights groups say amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. In recent months, the fighting has expanded to new areas, including agricultural centers such as Jazira province, which the RSF seized last year.

Tjada D’Oyen McKenna, chief executive of nongovernmental organization Mercy Corps, said that the expansion of fighting has devastated food production, and caused severe malnutrition among children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, the chronically ill and older people.

“Sudan has become one of the world’s largest and most ignored man-made tragedies,” McKenna said. “This crisis demands urgent diplomatic efforts to ensure the rapid and safe delivery of humanitarian aid and protection of civilians.”

QU Dongyu, director-general of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said the IPC report revealed “a deepening and rapid deterioration of the food security situation in Sudan with millions of people’s lives at risk.”

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