Famine looms in Nuba Mountains

By Cathy Majtenyi
Issue 62 - May 2001

A recent report has called for food aid and other supplies to be flown into the Nuba Mountains within the next few months to prevent starvation. But sending food into the area has its risks.

A minimum of 42,000 people living in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan may face starvation later this year unless emergency food and other supplies are flown into the area, a team of food security experts has recently warned.

Poor rains, soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, aerial bombardment of the area by the Sudanese government, and a lack of access to the fertile lowlands because of the on-going war are the major factors for this food shortage, concludes a report released in mid-April by the Nairobi-based Nuba Mountains Food Security Working Group.

The report, titled "Food Security in the Nuba Mountains 2001 - Situation, Needs, and Recommendations," calls for the provision of 200 metric tonnes of donated grain; 21 metric tonnes of dressed seed; six two-wheeled mini-tractors complete with fuel, basic spare parts, and tools; an array of essential livestock drugs; and US$450,000 to pay for transportation costs.

"If these additional interventions can be implemented in time. The assessment concludes that not only will the risk of hunger-induced mortality/migration be minimised but also that agricultural production for this coming season could be safe-guarded," says the April 18 report.

The report follows two months of investigation by a team of seven Nuba and expatriate food security experts. They walked 500 kilometres, surveying households using rapid rural appraisal and household budgeting techniques. They concluded that a minimum of 42,000 people need help. The Nuba Food Security Working Group, which consists of six non-government organisations, is now looking at ways to cope with the impending famine.

But that is no small task. To begin with, since 1992, the Sudanese government has sealed off the Nuba Mountains from all contact with the outside world, in part to flush out forces of the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).

The United Nations has been unable to negotiate access through its Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) initiative; all access to the Nuba Mountains is illegal. According to an agreement signed in 1989 between Khartoum and the OLS, the Nuba Mountains are considered to be a part of northern Sudan and is therefore ineligible to receive food and other aid.

The UN did receive permission to send an assessment mission into the Nuba Mountains in 1998, says Waren Awad, assistant food security program officer with the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development Organisation (NNRDO), which is a member of the food security working group. "But so far no aid has been given to the Nuba Mountains," he says.

The ramifications of this isolation for the people on the ground, as well as the fall-out from the internal displacement and the food insecurity situation, are enormous, says an aid worker who prefers not to be identified. "The choices [for the people] are either to move to the peace villages in government-held areas or to suffer the indignity of starvation.

"The vast majority of people who stay in the SPLM-held territories have made this conscious decision to stay, because they very much fear that the whole Nuba culture is going to be wiped out. Because they make that choice, they suffer as a consequence," said the aid worker.

And the random bombing of the area by the Sudanese government makes it all but impossible to even investigate the situation. For instance, the head of the food security team was sitting in a small aircraft on the Kauda airstrip on the morning of April 17 on his way back to Nairobi when an Antonov swooped down and dropped 14 bombs around the airstrip.

On the ground were several hundred people - including Bishop Max Macram of El Obeid, Africanews correspondent Stephen Amin, and Koinonia President Fr. Renato Kizito Sesana - to see the aircraft off and to welcome another in-coming airplane loaded with food and other supplies. Both airplanes managed to escape; two Nubans were killed on the ground.

If the Nuba Mountains Food Security Working Group is able to dodge the flight ban and the bombs and actually deliver the food and other aid, it will be the first time that such a large-scale relief intervention will be introduced into the Nuba Mountains, says Awad. And that may have unintended, negative spin-offs unless it is handled properly, he says.

For instance, since last year, the NRRDO has been working with the Nuba Economic Commission (NEC) on a programme called the Commodity Injection Pilot (CIP), designed to build up economic markets in the Nuba Mountains as a way of ensuring self-sufficient economic development and food security.

Before that, households had been receiving cash in an earlier programme called Cash Injection/Local Purchase. The idea was that people who needed food could purchase surplus food from farmers, which would form the beginnings of a market. However, people also used the cash to buy salt, soap, thread, batteries, and other supplies from Jellaba Arab traders from outside the Nuba Mountains; hence, the money left the area.

In this newest project, the NEC purchases commodities from outside and re-sells them to local traders, who then sell them to consumers. Prices are cheaper than those that the Jellaba traders charge, and cash stays in circulation in the Nuba Mountains.

But a large injection of food supplies might distort the fledgling market, says Awad. "Grain would be flown from outside the area. I think it would be a matter of relief rather than providing an occasion for running this food security programme. Generally in the Nuba Mountains, relief is not a good thing.

"It would be much better if the grain was produced locally," he says. "We need some aid, but only that people could be able to produce for themselves next year. By nature, Nuba people produce their own grain."