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Humanitarian situation in Western Darfur spiralling downhill - aid workers

Four months after the Darfur crisis in Sudan was described by the UN as the "world's worst humanitarian disaster", tens of thousands of people in the state of Western Darfur still live without shelter or sanitation, receive no food aid and have to drink contaminated water.

About 10 NGOs, a number of UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross are currently working in three localities along the border with Chad that are served from Al-Junaynah, the state's main town: Al-Junaynah, Habilah and Kulbus. But the basic minimum requirements for the 350,000 to 400,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in accessible areas in Western Darfur are far from being met. A further 100,000 vulnerable people may be in areas that have never been accessed, aid workers told IRIN, not to mention the growing numbers of "conflict affected" persons, who have depleted their meagre stocks of food in supporting their displaced kin.

"We must not mistake that level of activity for sufficient activity," said one aid worker. "By no stretch of the imagination are we reaching the minimum standards to which we strive." "We don't have the capacity to address the basic minimum needs," she continued, adding that the available aid was "nowhere near sufficient to address the immediate concerns of the population, let alone the deteriorating situation over the next few months".

MORE PREVENTIVE ACTION NEEDED

Conditions in Western Darfur are such that many of the aid workers are themselves falling sick.

Delayed access to the state and logistical problems have meant that getting staff, equipment and basic aid into the area - the most inaccessible of the three Darfur states - has been extremely difficult. But more needs to be done to save people's lives, say aid workers; there have only been two food distributions to date, the latest one with reduced rations. Tens of thousands of IDPs have received no food or shelter items at all and are cramped under bits of bramble, leaves, sticks and dry grass - and the rainy season has already begun. Many are drinking "pea-green" water and scrounging to survive on mukhayt - a berry that takes three days to prepare and gives diarrhoea.

To compound matters, logistical problems had prevented in the World Food Programme (WFP) from pre-positioning any food for the rainy season as planned, WFP spokesman Peter Smerdon told IRIN on Saturday. "We have not pre-positioned what we'd hoped to," he said. With extremely cramped conditions in the "camps" and practically no access to clean water or health care, the outlook for the rainy season is grim: rising water tables, floating faeces and rubbish in wadis and pools, and widespread outbreaks of diarrhoea, cholera and malaria.

"We've got a precarious situation in that people are weakened, they are not getting enough food, they are living in abominable conditions which are very cramped, with no sanitation to speak of," said one aid worker. They are also reliant on outside help because the area is chronically underdeveloped, the Sudanese government is providing little material support, and they fear being shot, raped or beaten by local Janjawid militias if they leave their "camps" to work or farm, aid workers said. "They cannot help themselves, they are totally dependent on aid," a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) worker told IRIN.

Meanwhile, the government declared last week that enough aid was coming into the area. Sudanese Humanitarian Affairs Minister Ibrahim Mahmud Hamid told reporters that problems in Darfur were "getting smaller". "The humanitarian situation in Sudan is getting better," he said. "What [aid] is now present is enough, even past the rainy season."

There were still some problems transporting aid, but by June, about 90 percent of people in Northern Darfur and 100 percent in Western Darfur had been reached, he said. The reality is far removed from that assessment, say humanitarian workers in the area. It was very easy for people sitting in offices in Khartoum to count the number of agencies and proclaim that the problems were being addressed, commented one aid worker.

DETERIORATING HEALTH AND NUTRITION

The original population of Al-Junaynah town, estimated at 100,000, has almost doubled since the conflict began: about 20,000 IDPs are camped in a number of schools and derelict buildings in the town while 70,000 to 80,000 are squatting in four main camps on the outskirts.

Rates of malnutrition in the town are high and on the rise; according to MSF, current rates are 25 percent global acute malnutrition and 5 percent severe acute malnutrition. Problems with registration, including large population movements, had resulted in food being distributed to 249,000 people (IDPs and conflict-affected) in the western part of the state, WFP spokesman Peter Smerdon told IRIN. But as many as 200,000 others may also be entitled to food aid in the area, say aid workers: 100,000 in government-held areas that are accessible and an estimated 100,000 in inaccessible areas.

Those receiving food are reportedly getting half or three-quarter rations. Smerdon confirmed to IRIN that supply problems had resulted in reduced rations being given out, but said WFP was doing its best to remedy the situation. [See story titled SUDAN: Darfur IDPs face food shortage] "If they are only getting half rations now before the rainy season, it's very difficult to be optimistic," an MSF worker told IRIN.

Meanwhile, the growing numbers of malnourished children being treated by MSF in tents beside Al-Junaynah hospital were often being hidden at home until the last minute, or until the "khwaje" [white person] appeared in the camps to take them to hospital, MSF workers told IRIN. "Most deaths occur within 24 hours [of coming here]," MSF's Eric Dortenzio told IRIN. There was no culture of seeking medical attention in the area, because even entry through the gates of the hospital cost money, IRIN was told. In any case, local health services are totally inadequate. The hospital in Al-Junaynah has only 10 beds for children. Last week alone MSF was treating 90 malnourished children in its feeding centre.

In Al-Riyad camp on the outskirts of Al-Junaynah, MSF staff saw 140 malnourished children in the last three weeks, but with the current rates of malnutrition, they felt there were at least 500 at any given time.

NO SANITATION

Sanitation in the camps hardly exists. The average was about one latrine per 120 people, but in any case they were not being used, said one aid worker. The latrines were often badly located, had see-through, badly made walls, and were often used as dumping grounds for rubbish instead of toilets. Most people were accustomed to defecating in the open, which meant that providing latrines without hygiene promotion programmes was totally ineffective, sources said.

Water was also in short supply. Practically all the town's IDPs were surviving on just a few litres a day in temperatures reaching up to 50 degrees during the day. Some had to make do with as little as a litre or two. IDPs in Al-Junaynah told IRIN in the town that their water supply had been cut off for three and four days at a time. The general health situation has been deteriorating fast as a direct result of this. In Murnei alone, which had about 80,000 IDPs, 200 children and adults were dying from diarrhoea per month, an MSF worker told IRIN. Some local people believe that the cure for diarrhoea is to withhold all food and water, which dehydrates the person even more.

In a "normal" year, 10,000 people die of malaria and between 20,000 and 30,000 of preventable diseases in Darfur, Jan Egeland, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told reporters last week. No one knows how many people are now dying from malnutrition and disease in Western Darfur. But the combination of rising malnutrition, lack of food, lack of shelter during the rains and almost no mosquito nets was "a perfect recipe" for malaria and outbreaks of other diseases, said one aid worker. Efforts are being made to distribute shelter items to help the IDPs to protect themselves from the elements and mosquitoes.

About 327,000 people have been given some basic items necessary for survival - packages supposed to include two blankets, soap, a plastic sheet and two jerry cans for every five people. However, less than 60 percent of the packages contained even one jerry can, an aid worker told IRIN, which meant that people had nothing to carry water or fuel in. "What are they supposed to carry it in - their hands?" he asked. Other basic items like poles to enable them to make houses, sleeping mats and cooking items are also missing.

Recent protests in the IDP camps and outside UN offices show that the IDPs have been becoming increasingly bewildered and angry. Making them even angrier and more desperate was the fact that 35 percent more people had been given blankets and plastic sheets than had received food, the aid worker said, because of different methods of registration. "You can't give them shelter items and no food," he complained.

Notes:

TITLE: Humanitarian situation in Western Darfur spiralling downhill - aid workers
AUTHOR: IRIN, Al-Junaynah
CATEGORY: Sudan
DATE: 7/13/2004
SOURCE: IRIN News
SOURCE WEBSITE: http://www.irinnews.org/print.asp?ReportID=42144
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