Sudan Update: The Water Diplomat Speaks to Action Against Hunger

Interview with Paloma Martin, coordinator for Action Against Hunger

7 Sep 2023 by The Water Diplomat

Tobias Schmitz: From your perspective, what is the current status of the conflict and which areas are currently affected: has this changed geographically since mid-May?

Paloma Martin: The fighting that began with the outbreak of conflict on 15 April between the Sudanese armed forces and the Sudanese security forces has resulted in frequent air attacks and shelling of military and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, in the capital Khartoum and other parts of the country. More than 2.8 million people have been displaced, including more than 2.2 million internally and nearly 615,000 who have crossed into neighbouring countries. 

Humanitarian programmes have been severely affected by attacks and looting of their premises, including the killing and injuries of humanitarian personnel, and destruction of infrastructure. At least 19 aid workers have been killed since the conflict began and many more have been injured. The latest news is that 53 warehouses of humanitarian partners have been looted, 87 of their offices have been ransacked and at least 188 vehicles have been stolen.  Evacuations of humanitarian personnel have taken place in in key locations in Sudan, including Khartoum and Darfur, and some programmes have been suspended.

Looting and destruction of property is widespread in Khartoum and throughout Darfur as armed groups take advantage of the outbreak of conflict to rob and/or set fire to banks, shops, humanitarian offices, hospitals and homes. Civilians have been caught in the crossfire, resulting in at least 1,100 civilian deaths and injuries, and have had additonal distressing experiences, including deprivation of access to cash and reported cases of sexual violence.

Many ceasefires have been announced at different times since the beginning of the conflict, including a ceasefire on the 21st of June brokered by by Saudi Arabia and the United States. Following the reemergence of conflict, the IGAD group led by President William Ruto of Kenya  disucssed another roadmap for peace on the 10th of July, but the conflict continues to spread.

More than two-thirds of the fighting initially took place in Khartoum and other urban areas along major roads, particularly the east-west corridors from Kassala to West Darfur. Since then, the conflict has spread to many parts of the country, with strong momentum in Greater Darfur, with  conflicto breaking out in the towns of el Facher and al-Foula . 

Tobias Schmitz: The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates that the total number of people in need of humanitarian assistance was 15.8 million in 2022 and has become 24.7 million currently: do you have more information on these estimates and where are the main problems?

Paloma Martin: The number of people estimated to need humanitarian assistance across the country in 2023 has increased from 15.8 million last year to 24.7 million currently. The conflict has caused enormous human suffering and exacerbated significant pre-existing humanitarian needs among Sudan's civilian population. The conflict took place mainly in urban areas that were not previously included or were marginally included in the country's humanitarian response planning. Another factor contributing to the increase in the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance is the need to scale up life-saving multisectoral assistance to crisis-affected people and mitigate protection risks for those same people. In addition to large-scale displacement, the conflict has reduced access to food, water, money, health care and other basic services for millions of people.

The country is also experiencing severe water shortages caused by power cuts, which have led to an increase in the number of people in need of humanitarian WASH assistance. The target number of people in need of WASH services is 6.8 million.

As a result of the ongoing conflict, less than 20 per cent of health facilities in Khartoum remain fully functional and 60 per cent are not functioning, severely limiting access to urgent medical services for millions of people – a major factor in the increase in the number of people in need of humanitarian health assistance.

Similarly, many urban areas of the country have suffered heavy shelling that has damaged essential water, health care and electricity infrastructure, leading to an increase in the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance related to water, health services and electricity infrastructure in many parts of the Sudan.

Tobias Schmitz: To what extent is it still true that the water supply systems in Khartoum are down and have some repairs been possible?

Paloma Martin: Water, sanitation and hygiene needs are rising sharply in Khartoum and other conflict-affected states due to non-functionality of water treatment plans and interruption of the supply chain. It is not possible to repair or rehabilitate water points because insecurity affects the movement of humanitarian personnel. There are no intentional attacks on water infrastructure, but due to the use of heavy weapons, including airstrikes and fighting in residential areas, water and electricity stations have been either damaged or severely interrupted. Access to water points is problematic, leading to an increase in the number of displaced people at various assembly points, including at international borders.

Tobias Schmitz: How is the coordination of humanitarian assistance approached at this time?

Paloma Martin: UN organisations and INGOs have made efforts to ensure the safe evacuation of their international staff and to make arrangements for the safety of their local staff in the first weeks after the conflict began. they then began working on plans to scale up humanitarian assistance to affected people in collaboration with local organizations, civil groups and local INGO staff. UN/INGO used the signing of a seven-day ceasefire on 20 May to allow civilians to move, deliver vital humanitarian supplies and repair critical infrastructure.

Humanitarian partners have provided food to affected people in several states, as well as water, health care and hygiene support to displaced people where access to those in need has been possible. Despite all the challenges, humanitarian actors have provided life-saving assistance to 2.8 million people.

The UN community and NGOs have sought to advocate with the Sudanese authorities to create a safe environment and remove bureaucratic obstacles at local and national levels to enable humanitarian workers to deliver supplies quickly and safely. Different general and sectoral platforms of INGOs have been created to facilitate the humanitarian response process, such as the INGO Daily Check-in, which shares information on what each INGO is doing on the ground to meet the humanitarian needs of the affected population. There are also access working groups that work on humanitarian access issues.

Other platforms are the weekly INGO meetings on security, jointly facilitated by OCHA and UNDSS - the outcomes of these meetings are advisory notes on security and joint security planning.

Other specialized platforms are sectoral forums such as the SLF, the CASH Working Group, WASH, Health and Nutrition, and Protection, AAP (Accountability for Affected Population). WASH sector – UNICEF/line ministries hold weekly coordination meetings with WASH partners to discuss humanitarian update (main impact and needs) to prioritize areas, mobilize existing resources to fill gaps, encourage partners to update their HRP 2023 by requesting more funding to respond to the recent emergency in Sudan. The WASH cluster provides technical support to international and national WASH partners and supports the Water and Environmental Sanitation (WES) project with WASH equipment and ministries of health with chemicals (chlorine tablets) and information, education and communication materials. In addition, partners share their quarterly response tracking data.


Tobias Schmitz: What are ACF's activities and needs at this time in Sudan?

Paloma Martin:  security and bureaucratic access issues, including lack of visas for NGOs, and attacks on humanitarian premises and warehouses continue to hamper partners' ability to deliver aid and services safely and on a large scale. In particular, humanitarians face enormous challenges in reaching people in need in conflict-affected areas in Khartoum, Darfur and Kordofan states, where the situation is extremely worrying.

ACF continued operations in three of its four operational areas in the health and nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene, and FLS sectors (ACF operations continued in White Nile, Blue Nile and South Kordofan - we are working to resume our operations in Central Darfur,  which has been extremely difficult so far due to the security situation). 

Activities focus mainly on survival, health and nutrition services and primary health services, selection of cash assistance recipients and distribution of agricultural inputs. 51 health centres are operational and Action Against Hunger has delivered nutritional products to the White Nile and is currently making deliveries to the Blue Nile.  Since the beginning of the conflict, Action Against Hunger has reached affected children and pregnant and lactating women. A total of 1,015 children under 5 and 117 pregnant and lactating women received treatment for malnutrition by the Sudanese Action Against Hunger mission. These include the treatment of severe and moderate malnutrition. Action Against Hunger supports the screening of malnutrition, the treatment of cases (malnutrition and infection) and the distribution of supplies at health facilities despite the context of security and limited accessibility. In Blue Nile, White Nile and South Kordofan, we have pre-positioned stocks of RUTF/medicines for three months in preparation for the rainy season.

Scarcity of water, food and health services leads to communicable diseases such as diarrhoea, malaria and other related infections. Action Against Hunger's team in Sudan supported the treatment of more than 1,676 cases of children under 5 and adults. In South Kordofan State, more than 84 cases of malaria have been treated.

In White Nile, Action Against Hunger successfully distributed agricultural inputs (seeds) to 238 targeted farmers at the household level, helping them produce food. Beneficiaries received training on agricultural practices prior to seed distribution.