NAIROBI — When heavy rains hit Sudan in recent months, it took everyone by surprise. The downpours were unlike anything the Sudanese people had experienced in the last century — with the Nile river bursting its banks, causing widespread damage to homes and crops.
The torrential rains and subsequent floods killed more than 100 people, destroyed at least 175,000 houses, and left over 875,000 people needing humanitarian assistance, including refugees and internally displaced populations.
Even as waters begin to recede, stagnant water and the damage from the floods remain, and responders say low funding is crippling the ability of humanitarian organizations to adequately reach communities impacted by the floods.
“The floods are ... the last straw in this already very difficult environment.”— Abeer Etefa, spokesperson, World Food Programme
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent said that only about 22% of people impacted by the floods have received assistance, and only 15% of its emergency appeal is funded.
These unprecedented floods come at a time of political insecurity as Sudan navigates a transitional government, which came to power last year following the ousting of autocrat leader Omar al-Bashir after three decades in power. The country is also struggling economically with high levels of inflation, shortages of essential products such as fuel and medicine, as well as incidents of violence in Western Darfur.
There is widespread discontent over the state of things — protesters took to the streets this week to decry living conditions and crackdowns on demonstrators, as well as to push for swifter reforms.
“The floods are kind of the last straw in this already very difficult environment,” said Abeer Etefa, spokesperson for the World Food Programme.
The heavy rains started in late July and intensified in August and September. According to assessments, 17 out of 18 states in the country were impacted. Last month, the government declared a three-month state of emergency.
The flood waters damaged 5.4 million acres of farmland and over 110,000 heads of livestock were reported missing, according to Babagana Ahmadu, representative in Sudan for the Food and Agricultural Organization. There won’t be a harvest in areas badly affected by the floods, he said.
Because two-thirds of the country’s population relies on small-scale agriculture, food security is a major concern. Even before the floods, 9.6 million people — about a fifth of the nation’s population — were facing severe food insecurity.
The upcoming winter planting season is approaching, creating an urgent need for an increase in funding so that farmers can access seeds and fertilizers to begin planting in early November, Ahmad said.
The crop failures are compounded by the highest inflation rate the country has experienced in decades.
The floods are also not an isolated event — weather events have become more extreme in Sudan, Ahmad said. Seeds that were previously adapted to the climate are now late maturing “because they cannot cope with the erratic nature of the rainfall,” he said.
These floods have laid bare the need for the country to strengthen its disaster risk management system, including early warning and action systems so that farmers are given notice ahead of time, Ahmad said. There is also a need to discourage farmers from planting in flood-prone areas or in drainage systems, as well as encouraging them to use early maturing varieties and to sustainably use water and soil.
Stagnant water, poor living conditions
Beyond a food crisis are concerns over the conditions many people now live in. Nearly half a million people were displaced by the floods.
IFRC Secretary General Jagan Chapagain recently visited a displacement camp on the outskirts of the capital city of Khartoum, calling the conditions “appalling.”
“The people I met in the camp are angry and told me they haven’t received anywhere near the kind of support that they need,” he wrote in a press release.
Responders say there is a need for shelter, clean water, latrines, soap, and mosquito nets. There is also infrastructure damage to schools and health facilities.
With stagnating water, an estimated 10 million people are at risk of water-borne disease while 4.5 million people are exposed to vector-borne diseases.
Arshad Malik, country director in Sudan at Save the Children, said the organization has seen a spike in malaria cases in most of the locations it operates. Parts of the country are also at “very high” risk of cholera outbreaks and there are concerns that COVID-19 efforts have been sidelined.
“We might see a second wave of COVID … if attention is not given to COVID prevention, and resources are not allocated for treatment and creating awareness around the community,” Malik said.
Funding gaps are a major concern among responders, who see this crisis as overshadowed by an abundance of pressing crises globally, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
WFP Sudan estimates that it requires an additional $86 million for the next six months for an effective response to the flood and food crises across the country. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' overall response, which includes COVID-19, is only 48% funded.
In addition, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement negotiated in Sudan opens up portions of the country previously not under government control, which are now expecting access to services, putting additional burdens on a government that is already stretched thin, Malik said.
There is an increased level of engagement from the government, which for the first time is asking humanitarian actors to support communities in those areas previously out of the government’s control, he said.
“This is a moment when Sudan needs support from the international community. It’s now or never. Sudan is at a historical juncture where we can actually help the country to become one of the better countries in terms of democracy and human rights. But it has all the potential to go back to become one of the worst countries if the international community does not step up at this stage,” Malik said.
Humanitarians also told Devex they are waiting to see how U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement this week about the country’s plans to lift Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism might help its economy and access to foreign aid.
“We welcome any lifting of sanctions that would lead to facilitation of humanitarian work,” IFRC’s Selmer-Andresen said.