Aid groups struggling to reach particular areas in northern South Sudan now have another option to deliver assistance than expensive airlifts.
Devex learned that the World Food Program has made over the past two weeks several successful cross-border trials to transport food on trucks and barges from neighboring Sudan to remote locations in the Upper Nile state, months after the U.N. agency and South Sudanese officials signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sudanese government to allow the cross-border operation.
Aid delivery within South Sudan to these northern areas — which also include Unity State and Jonglei State — has become extremely challenging since a failed coup sparked an ongoing conflict between the government and rebel forces that has no end in sight, on top of the rainy season and poor infrastructure.
The hard-won deal, which took months to secure, is not limited to food, and the opportunity can extend to other U.N. agencies that are also finding difficulties in transporting aid supplies to Upper Nile, Unity and Jonglei in South Sudan, WFP Sudan Deputy Country Director Margot Van der Velden told Devex. This will be much cheaper than airlifts and safer than delivering from within the country, which puts staff and partners at risk of being caught in crossfires.
However, the process is not so straightforward, and any request by interested groups can only be processed if and when approved by a technical committee composed of WFP representatives, and officials from Sudan and South Sudan.
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According to Van der Velden, the governments of Sudan and South Sudan allow WFP the sole transporter of any aid items so they don’t have to deal with myriad requests coming from different aid groups operating in South Sudan.
Milestone in bilateral relations
So far, two cross-border trials have gone smoothly, except for a few delays in offloading in Renk and Melut that made the aid convoys return after a week because there weren’t enough porters, Van der Velden said. The target, she explained, is for all deliveries to be concluded in a maximum of four to five days, and for land transportation services to take place on a weekly basis beyond the new year.
The agreement can be seen as a milestone in bilateral relations, although it’s still unclear what led to such a breakthrough after years of tensions between Khartoum and Juba.
Van der Velden believes the Sudanese government has always been willing to help its southern neighbor, now experiencing a dire humanitarian crisis.
“I have a feeling that from the beginning both governments were wanting to make this happen, but this had not happened for three years because there wasn’t a precedent on this one, that it just took a little bit of time for them to actually feel that there was enough trust and feasibility of this being a success rather than a difficult operation,” she explained. “Once that was realized and there’s enough confidence this can happen, it just happened.”
Sudan’s support, though, still doesn’t extend to rebel-held areas in its own Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, where the government has banned aid groups from despite reports of dire humanitarian crisis there.
The WFP official said they are seeing hope to overcome this impasse in recent bilateral talks in Addis Ababa, but whether that will translate into anything fruitful remains to be seen.
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