Sudan: Famine Risk Is Real, FAO Warns

Published: Sun 21 Apr 2024 06:33 AM
Rein Paulsen, Director of FAO’s Office of Emergencies and Resilience, is in the country as part of UN interagency response to the food security crisis driven by the war between rival military forces, now in its second year.
“We’re here because the risk of famine is real. The food security situation is concerning. But we have an opportunity to respond,” he told UN News, speaking from the coastal city of Port Sudan.Funding and access
Across Sudan, 18 million people – more than a third of the population – are going hungry.
Mr. Paulsen appealed for more support for farmers, who are preparing their land now to plant crops in June.
FAO requires $104 million to support just over 10 million Sudanese this year but has received less than 10 per cent of the funding.
He said safe access is also a priority, both for Sudanese farmers and the UN agency.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Rein Paulsen: There’s a number of actions that both can and need to be taken right now, and I do think it's vitally important that we underscore one key point at the outset. The crop and food supply assessment mission, which looked at 2023 numbers, showed a 46 per cent reduction nationally in terms of the production of key crops, so wheat, sorghum, millet, and also rice and maize.
That deficit is not going to be possible to be made up with just in-kind food assistance or with cash distributions. It's indispensable that we support vulnerable farmers and farming communities to either restart their production themselves or further bolster what's underway.
FAO has a three-pronged strategy. A key component is around crops for the two main seasons, so cereals for this upcoming season and then key vegetables for the second season, but also attention to livestock. So many of those who are in acute food insecurity also rely on, livestock, and so being able to support those animals with emergency fodder and key vaccinations, all of which help to ensure that households that are food insecure continue, for example, to have access to milk production from their goats.
All of this is indispensable for effective famine prevention efforts. We have a window of opportunity, and that window is right now.
UN News: In your meetings with the parties, do you receive any guarantees that they will do what they can to avoid a further deterioration of the food security situation?
Rein Paulsen: I had the opportunity on this mission to meet with authorities here in Port Sudan. The discussions we've had have gone very well. We have a strong technical collaboration and I expect that collaboration to continue.
We work on a number of different technical areas with authorities, including around desert locust control and prevention. We're likely to see the Government announce in the coming days, or in the coming weeks, that the desert locust control operations have been fully successful.
We've talked about the priorities to respond to the situation now being shared with all of the stakeholders there, articulated clearly in the interagency famine prevention plan. And we hope that we get all the support required to be able to deliver on the response.
There are two key sets of challenges for FAO, and I think generally one set of challenges around funding and another around access. Both need to be addressed for us to be able to prevent the risk of famine from unfolding.
The funding issue is a real challenge. We have less funding this year than we did last year, and the food insecurity situation is worse this year than last year, so those two trends are heading in the wrong directions.
UN News: Can you tell us what it's like to be a farmer in Sudan, or an average Sudanese person living in a in a rural area today?
Rein Paulsen: I had a chance to visit with some farming communities that FAO has been supporting last year. The families that we met with were describing a situation where, in addition to everything that's happening in various parts of the country around conflict - and we do know that conflict is the main driver of the crisis - that wasn't the case with the families that we met. They also faced challenges when it comes to climate dynamics and challenges.
We were in fields looking at crops that have been harvested, but we were also looking at earth dams that have been washed away earlier this year as a result of flooding in the past. And so, there's a precarious reality for vulnerable farming households that needs attention.
I think it's really important to understand that the situation of those in acute food insecurity is nuanced and different by specific location and locality. But for me, the main takeaway from the engagement with these communities was that I saw production taking place.
We saw ripe tomatoes being harvested and going into local markets - again a reminder that it's possible to do impactful, life-changing, lifesaving work, even in challenging environments.
UN News: Sudan is very fertile, and like you said, there's a lot of potential for food production. But obviously there are reasons preventing farmers from reaching their lands. Can you give us some of those main reasons?
Rein Paulsen: If we look particularly at the situation over this last year, conflict is clearly the main driver when it comes to the current hunger crisis and food insecurity.
Nine out of ten people facing emergency food insecurity are in the conflict hotspots, so in Darfur, the Kordofan region, the Khartoum area, and recently also in Al Jazeera state which is often described as the breadbasket in terms of production nationally.
We've also heard reports from farmers about inability to access their plots of land. And for us, as a specialised technical agency, it's not just about giving inputs to farmers. We also provide technical assistance, but they obviously need access to their land to prepare it.
They need access to the land to plant and to monitor and surveil their crops, and then to be able to harvest. This issue of being able to access farming land is key and a major priority and concern.
UN News: You spoke earlier about agricultural support to mitigate the food insecurity crisis. Can this still be effective even as the conflict rages on?
Rein Paulsen: We've been able to demonstrate that it's possible to deliver at scale, even in very challenging circumstances. Just last year, FAO supported more than five million Sudanese people with emergency agricultural assistance.
We provided to more than a million farming households more than 10,000 metric tonnes of key seeds, including sorghum, millet, as well as okra. And we did that across 15 states. It was only in West Darfur and Central Darfur that we had challenges in terms of delivery.
So, it's possible to deliver at scale, and in terms of access, it's possible to work. Obviously, the situation is very dynamic, and we do hope and request and continue to work with all of the actors and stakeholders.
This year, our plan is to support more than 10 million Sudanese people with emergency agricultural assistance. The plans are ambitious but fully justified in line with the evolving situation. I would say funding is a very real challenge, and we need to be guided by evidence, we need to be focused on those contexts and situations where we have high levels of acute food insecurity, and there needs to be funding commensurate with the level of needs that exist. And we strongly feel that Sudan merits and deserves a lot more attention than it's currently receiving.

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