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Sudan faces 'catastrophic hunger' as conflict blocks aid

March 22, 2024

Brutal battles and pillaged aid deliveries have turned Sudan into the world's biggest humanitarian crisis. Now life-saving community initiatives are also running out of food as millions face extreme hunger.

Two internally displaced Sudanese women with colourful scarves outside a run-down building
Internally displaced Sudanese citizens suffer humanitarian aid shortage as Sudan slides into the world's worst humanitarian crisis.Image: Omer Erdem/Anadolu/picture alliance

For the activists who have been running the communal kitchen in Sudan's regional capital El Fasher for the past year, the United Nation's latest warning of "catastrophic hunger" felt as if someone had finally found the right words for the brutality of the situation.

For months the activists have not been able to raise funds or obtain food. They were simply left to watch their stockpiles diminish.

"Eventually, on February 15, we ran out of food and have not been able to feed anyone in our communal kitchen since then," one of the founders told DW. They asked that their name be withheld for fear of retribution; the region surrounding the city is currently the site of significant violent clashes.

The closure means that many Sudanese families in the area are left without even one meal a day, the activist told DW.

Since the beginning of Sudan's conflict a year ago, communal kitchen and other nationwide community-led initiatives, which are also known as emergency response rooms, or ERRs, have been a key lifeline for the population.

According to a recent report by the United Nations, ERRs have reached more than four million civilians with rapid assistance of all kinds, including water supplies, food, cooked meals and medical help; they've helped repair damaged power lines and have shared safe evacuation routes. 

"Some of the only humanitarian assistance has been provided by local responders like these emergency response rooms," Michelle D'Arcy, Sudan country director of the humanitarian organization Norwegian People's Aid, told DW.

"These volunteers are serving their community in the spirit of mutual aid and within Sudanese cultural traditions like 'Nafeer,' which is a call to come together and help your neighbors; yet, no matter how noble these efforts are, it is not enough to address the massive needs on the ground," she said.

Sudanese gather at their local emergency room in El Fasher and discuss ways to access food after the community kitchen ran out of stocks.
Sudanese gather at their local emergency room in El Fasher and discuss ways to access foodImage: ERRFC

Thousands dead, millions hungry and displaced

The brutal conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF, which are headed by General Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, headed by Burhan's deputy, General Mohammed Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, escalated in April 2023 over the integration of the RSF into the country's army.

Since then, both generals have been fighting for control of the country — a conflict whose price is the world's latest and biggest humanitarian crisis.

According to the UN World Food Programme, some 18 million people in Sudan, which is more than a third of the population, are now facing acute food insecurity.

Among the affected are 14 million children who are in need of humanitarian aid, Mandeep O'Brien, UNICEF's representative in Sudan, stated in March.

The Nutrition Cluster in Sudan, a partnership of international organizations and ministries, also reported that more than 2.9 million children are acutely malnourished — the most dangerous and deadly form of extreme hunger. It further predicted that about 222,000 severely malnourished children and more than 7,000 new mothers are likely to die in the coming months if their nutritional and health needs remain unmet. 

Sudan also faces the worst displacement crisis in the world: Some 8 million people have been forced from their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration. Thousands have also been killled.

Despite this severe humanitarian situation, neither of the feuding parties is willing to allow full and unhindered access for humanitarian organizations and goods.

"I regret to report that there has not been major progress on the ground," UN's director of humanitarian operations, Edem Wosornu, briefed the UN Security Council this week. 

Displaced Sudanese children stand in the courtyard of a school
Hundreds of thousands of children in Sudan are predicted to die of hunger in the next months if humanitarian aid is not increasedImage: -/AFP/Getty Images

Weaponizing infrastructure and aid

"Several aspects complicate creating humanitarian aid corridors and establishing demilitarized zones," Hager Ali, a researcher at the German think tank GIGA Institute for Global and Area Studies, told DW.

"To sabotage the Sudanese Armed Forces, the Rapid Support Forces occupy specific streets or chokepoints to block the flow of supplies to the troops and that coincides with non-military supply lines as well," Ali said.

"The RSF regularly pillages whatever they get their hands on and sells it rather than distribute it to the communities," she told DW.

The SAF also controls and blocks access of humanitarian aid en route to RSF-held territories, Ali added.

If nothing changes, the situation will get even worse in the near future, Ali warned.

Farmers have been forced to abandon their fields to flee the war, and they are now unable to work their fields ahead of the lean season in May — which is the period before the first harvest — due to ongoing fighting.

"One of the insidious tactics of RSF-warfare is starvation, and this is what is happening in the Jazeera state,"  Ali told DW, referring to the federal state in southeast Sudan, where nearly half of Sudan's total wheat production occurs.

"When the RSF took over, they burned crops and pillaged storage units, stole machinery for farming and even seeds for planting," Ali said, adding that they also "blackmailed farmers to join their ranks or to be executed."

Donkey-drawn carriages, the preferred mode of transport for people and goods in Sudan, as fuel prices rise due to internal fighting.
Sudan's economy has been severely impacted by inflation due to the fighting between RSF and SAFImage: -/AFP/Getty Images

Without internet, no money in a cashless economy

Hamid Khalafallah, a Sudanese policy analyst, fears that the situation in some areas, such as the Jazeera state, North Darfur — the western state where El Fasher is located — and the capital of Khartoum is even more desperate than international agencies assume.

"Citizens in the worst affected areas are not able to report or provide evidence because of the security risks and the internet blackout," Khalafallah told DW.

Since February, internet access across Sudan has been either limited or completely cut.

"This also means that the population is unable to receive money from their families or from abroad via mobile money transfers," he told DW.

As a consequence of the war, all economic transactions in Sudan have become cashless.

"Nobody pays in cash; everyone is relying on online transactions to buy or sell goods," Khalafallah said.

Community activists keep up their work

For those working to relieve Sudan's humanitarian crisis, the next ray of hope is the donor conference in mid-April in Paris. The country's need remains great: This year's United Nations humanitarian response plan of US$2.7 billion has been only 4% funded, with $131 million received.

Yet despite all the challenges, the activists of the communal kitchen in El Fasher haven't given up. "Our committee will continue to write proposals to humanitarian and non-governmental organizations, and we hope that funding will resume at some point," they told DW. 

Sudan's plight: 25 million people need humanitarian aid

Edited by: Cristina Burack

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa