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Sudan’s rapid descent into hunger and the local efforts to stop it

February 15, 2024
topic:Food Security
tags:#Sudan, #food security, #civil war, #Hunger, #farming
by:Marc Español
Sudan's bloody civil war has had a severe impact on agriculture and pushed food insecurity levels in the country to historic highs.

For months, the Sudanese city of Wad Madani, the central hub of Gezira state located south of Khartoum, Sudan's capital, remained a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of people seeking to escape the war that broke out last April between the regular army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

But everything changed in mid-December. Following a surprise attack, the RSF stormed Wad Madani and occupied the entire state of Gezira, encountering hardly any resistance and sending shockwaves through a region that had remained relatively quiet up until that point.

The consequences were appalling. As was the case in other locations they have reach, members of the RSF engaged in widespread looting. Gross human rights abuses, including sexual violence, killings, mutilations and ethnic profiling, took place. More than half a million people fled from the region, many on foot, in search of a new safe area, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

But the seizure of Gezira introduced an additional disaster. As one of Sudan's most fertile and prolific agricultural areas, the eruption of conflict and its occupation by the RSF poses a significant new threat to the food security of millions.

"We warned that the sudden expansion of the war to Gezira posed a direct threat to its citizens, agricultural facilities, livestock and irrigation system," said a spokesman of a local farmers’ association who spoke to FairPlanet on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

"The incidents of looting and plunder spread on a large scale, affecting our [agricultural] project facilities: vehicles, heavy machinery, tractors, means of communication, production inputs," he lamented.

The setback came at a critical time. Less than a year into the civil war, Sudan is already enduring the highest levels of food insecurity it has ever recorded due to the fallout from clashes. This includes land access issues, a lack of financing, soaring prices, widespread looting, supply chain disruptions and the destruction of markets and critical infrastructure.

"This will have a severe impact on the food production chain and the provision of basic needs for the citizens of Gezira state and the country as a whole," the local farmer added.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has already reported people dying of starvation.

A devastated ag sector

One of the most direct consequences of the outbreak of war in Sudan is that it has led to a sharp increase in insecurity and difficulties in accessing land in regions with a long agricultural tradition that have now become the scene of heavy fighting.

According to a survey of over 3,000 smallholder farmers conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), between August and October of last year, 28 per cent of respondents were displaced by the conflict. On a national level, 15 per cent noted that insecurity kept them away from farming, while some 18 per cent claimed they did not or would not plant this season.

"One of the most striking findings is the marked reduction in land cultivation, a trend that extends beyond conflict-afflicted zones," said IFPRI researchers Hala Abushama, Mosab Ahmed, Oliver Kirui and Khalid Siddig in a joint email to FairPlanet.

"This widespread decline, highlighted by the fact that 40 per cent of farmers skipped preparations for the summer planting season - with nearly half of them having no intention to plant at all - reflects a deep-seated sense of uncertainty," they noted.

The collapse of the banking system and the state’s dire economic problems also mean that many farmers face great difficulty in accessing the funds needed to support their operations.

Under ordinary conditions, many of them would take out loans from the Agricultural Bank of Sudan to be able to pay for supplies and machinery and to receive key inputs such as seeds and fertilisers. But with the outbreak of war this option is no longer viable.

In the IFPRI survey, more than 60 per cent of smallholder farmers highlighted a lack of money to fund operations as the main reason for not farming.

"While the Central Bank of Sudan (CBS) has made regulatory changes to lessen financial pressures on farmers, the actual experiences of the farming community diverge significantly," said the IFPRI researchers.

"The predominant feedback from farmers from the survey points to a critical lack of financial resources as a major hurdle," they noted. And added, "This disparity between policy reforms and their tangible benefits to farmers highlights the necessity for more direct and accessible financial support solutions."

On the consumer side, access to food has been severely hampered by soaring prices. 

The country’s official inflation rates have not been updated since February 2023, but the WFP estimates that they remain above 300 per cent. The UN agency also reported in December that the price of the local food basket was up 88 per cent compared to the beginning of last year.

Heavy fighting, including in Khartoum, the nation’s economic hub, has had a devastating hit on infrastructure. And the war has also caused significant disruption to local markets.

Another reason behind the alarming levels of food insecurity in Sudan is mass looting. 

Last December, for instance, WFP reported that RSF stormed their facilities in Gezira, which held stocks to feed 1.5 million severely food insecure people for a month and special food for 20,000 children and pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Against this backdrop, the weather has been of no help either. 

During the last rainy season, which spans from June to September, rainfall levels were average or slightly above. But irregularities in timing and distribution, along with higher than normal temperatures, disrupted parts of the agricultural season, according to a report by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).

"The disruptive force of ongoing conflicts exacerbates the difficulties brought by erratic weather patterns, such as delayed rainfall and drought, affecting agricultural activities far beyond the constraints of environmental factors alone," the IFPRI researchers noted.

Declining harvests also pose a challenge for livestock in Sudan, a country with an estimated 110 million head of cattle. Livestock farming is crucial for the country's food security and generates substantial export revenue, which is vital for importing additional food supplies.

A ripple effect

The figures provide insight into the scale of the crisis engulfing Sudan.

According to the latest forecasts, 17.7 million people across the country suffer from high levels of acute food insecurity, and almost 5 million of them are in an emergency situation.

These are the highest figures ever recorded in Sudan, and are particularly worrying because they coincide with the harvesting season, which typically provides some relief.

The highest levels of food insecurity are concentrated in regions most affected by the war: Greater Darfur, Greater Khartoum and Kordofan. There, violence severely restricts people’s movement, making access to already scarce food even more difficult.

The so-called hunger map of WFP shows that 42 per cent of Darfur's population (over 4.5 million people) live with insufficient food access, mostly in the west, centre and north of the state.

The plight is critical among the youngest: some 3.5 million children suffer from acute malnutrition, and 700,000 of them already experience severe acute malnutrition.

If they are not treated urgently, they are at high risk of dying.

"One of the main problems is that, even though there is food available, it is not accessible in some areas: Darfur, Kordofan and Khartoum, which are areas where humanitarian aid couldn’t have access [either]," said Adam Yao, the deputy FAO representative in Sudan.

So far, more than 10 million people remain displaced inside and outside Sudan, which in turn places additional pressure on the limited resources of many host communities.

Many fear that the situation in the country will deteriorate before it improves. 

The WFP has already warned that parts of Sudan are at risk of slipping into "catastrophic hunger conditions" soon, especially if aid agencies continue to be unable to scale up their operations and access and distribute food to people trapped in conflict zones.

In the short term, the spread of fighting into areas of southern and eastern Sudan that until now had remained relatively spared risks exacerbating the crisis even further.

"The conflict’s spread into key agricultural states like Gedaref, which is responsible for about 40 per cent of Sudan's total cereal production, presents an immediate and severe threat to the nation's food security and availability," the IFPRI researchers warned.

Local support

Attempting to extend a lifeline to farmers and addressing the urgent food needs of the most vulnerable populations poses yet another formidable challenge.

Beyond the risks posed by the war and widespread looting, the distribution of assistance is being severely constrained by threats, financial exploitation, bureaucratic hurdles and the politicisation of aid by the warring parties, the UN and other humanitarian agencies say.

That’s why FAO's Yao stressed that, to tackle the current crisis, the key is to concentrate efforts on maintaining as much activity as possible both in the local fields and markets. 

"We have to do everything to ensure that the situation is not further degraded," FAO’s deputy representative in Sudan, who has recently visited cultivated areas, said.

Yao’s has been one of the agencies leading these efforts. 

Last July, FAO launched an ambitious seed distribution campaign in agricultural regions that managed to reach over a million farmers and their families so that they could at least produce enough grain to meet the essential needs of 13 to 19 million people by December.

"That has really helped to maintain the situation [as it stands]," Yao stressed. "Otherwise, it would have been a catastrophe. We would have been running out of local food and we would not have the capacity to import food from outside either," he told FairPlanet.

These efforts are particularly relevant in states with large production areas such as Sennar, White Nile, Gedaref and Kassala, where field activity is most sustained. 

"If we don’t support local production, they will not have access to local food at a time when food imports are difficult," for reasons of transportation and funds, Yao argued.

"Surprisingly, despite daunting challenges, a resilience among smallholder farmers has been noted," the IFPRI researchers noted. "A considerable portion of them have either maintained or expanded their cultivated land compared to the previous year."

"This resilience, however, is fraught by the harsh realities of escalating input costs and availability issues," they added.

Yao also explained that markets in areas with heavy fighting and which have been cut off from the rest of the country, such as Darfur, Kordofan and Khartoum, are maintaining some activity, which opens the door to a different strategy.

"Where the markets are functioning, our advice is to transfer cash to vulnerable people so that they can have access to some food. That would also allow to maintain a dynamic family sector even in times of war," he suggested.

Moreover, Sudan's extensive experience in grassroots organisation seems to have enabled it to develop a widespread, informal network of local groups. These groups remain active across various regions of the country, despite the ongoing war and repression.

At the forefront of these efforts are the so-called emergency response rooms, youth-led groups mobilised to reach the most vulnerable civilians and provide aid, including food.

Grassroots campaigns have been organised abroad, mainly in Canada, to raise funds and send them to groups in Sudanese cities such as Khartoum, El Fasher and Nyala.

Activists and civil society groups have also called on the international community to recognise their critical work in the humanitarian field and provide them direct support.

Direct food distribution by large humanitarian agencies, meanwhile, has reached some 6 million people, according to data from the Sudan Food Security and Livelihoods (FSL).

Along with FAO, the most active organisation on this front is WFP, which has been able to deliver aid to more than 5 million people inside Sudan, and to over 1.2 million people who fled to neighbouring countries, despite the obstacles of conflict and funding.

Image by Mohamed Tohami.

Article written by:
Marc Español
Embed from Getty Images
Gross human rights abuses, including sexual violence, killings, mutilations and ethnic profiling, took place in the formerly safe state of Gezira.
Embed from Getty Images
“We warned that the sudden expansion of the war to Gezira posed a direct threat to its citizens, agricultural facilities, livestock and irrigation system,” said a spokesman of a local farmers’ association who spoke with FairPlanet on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Embed from Getty Images
One of the most direct consequences of the outbreak of war in Sudan is that it has led to a sharp increase in insecurity and difficulties in accessing land in regions with a long agricultural tradition that have now become the scene of heavy fighting.