Are things getting worse in Darfur? There is no simple answer.
by Alex de Waal and Sam Rosmarin
Every month, we hear advocates and humanitarian organizations saying that the situation in Darfur is once again deteriorating. The Sudan government says the opposite. It is unusual for an independent observer such as Gerbert van der Aa to make the case that things are not as bad as they are painted. What is the basis for these claims and counter-claims? Is it violent deaths, overall mortality and malnutrition, levels of displacement, security incidents affecting humanitarian agencies, or some other indicator?
Violent deaths peaked between September 2003 and June 2004. According to the most thorough study (CRED), an estimated 35,000 people were killed by violence in this period through to January 2005. Over the last 24 months, the data contained in UN reports indicate that violent deaths have averaged 100-200 individuals per month, with occasional spikes of twice that number. Meanwhile, attacks against humanitarian organizations have definitely increased. The recent surge in violent incidents appears to be carried out by crime groups or bandits looking to steal cars and sell them in neighboring countries such as Chad or Libya. This year, over seventy cars have already been stolen according to the UN. This has made humanitarian organizations increasingly unwilling to access some areas of Darfur. No specific humanitarian organization is targeted, but some, such as the World Food Programme (WFP), are better-equipped to continue work despite such dangers. On June 11, 2007, the WFP received $18 million (US) to sustain their air transport services in Sudan. These services support 12,000 humanitarian workers — many of whom can no longer use roads due to the security situation.
On December 18, 2006, the compounds of Oxfam and Action Against Hunger/Action Contre La Faim in Gereida camp were raided by a group aligned with the SLM-Minawi faction. This faction is now part of the Government of Sudan and has also been responsible for the killing of a number of AMIS troops since the Darfur Peace Agreement. Not only were $300,000 in vehicles stolen, but the attackers raped a female aid worker, beat an Oxfam staff member and subjected other aid workers to mock executions. As a result, Oxfam temporarily suspended operations in Gereida (with over 130,000 people it is the world’s largest refugee camp). This past Sunday (June 17), Oxfam announced that the situation had not improved in the Gereida area and, as a result, they were permanently closing their operations at the camp. Although Oxfam is looking into distributing their resources allocated for Gereida to other parts of Darfur, events like these show the precarious and volatile nature of aid work in Darfur.
Does this decreased security for humanitarian organizations have an impact on humanitarian access? Certainly. In its October-November Darfur Nutrition Update, UNICEF noted that the “evacuation of NGO staff has left hundreds of thousands of people without assistance”. In February 2007, UNICEF reported continued limited access. However, it must be noted that humanitarian access in Darfur has always been limited, even before the conflict began.
Does decreased humanitarian access (and total aid) adversely impact Darfurians’ risk of death? Possibly, depending on which indicators are assessed. Crude and under-5 mortality rates, the most important indicators of a population’s health, peaked in early 2004, fell sharply through the end of year and have remained constantly below the emergency threshold since 2005. However, although all surveys agree that mortality peaked in June 2004, recent surveys show divergent localized mortality rates. The WFP and UNICEF claim that the Darfur-wide crude mortality (CMR) rate fell as low as 0.35 deaths per 10,000 per day, which is much lower than the 1/10,000/day emergency threshold and similar to what would be considered normal for such a population in peacetime. However, the surveys in conflict areas in 2006 compiled by CRED do not show a CMR that low. CRED’s recent data indicate that things have gotten worse in several hotspots in South Darfur, especially near Nyala — where one study found a CMR of 2.0 in December 2006. There is insufficient data to conclude if this is indicative of a greater trend, or is a spike that reflects the new arrival of a group of displaced persons. Meanwhile, other recent surveys cited by CRED show very low CMRs.
The major improvement in mortality rates coincided with the start of the widespread humanitarian presence in Darfur, which was also when the large-scale offensives by the government and Janjawiid were ending. Since then, health trends have been generally positive. The number of households in Darfur with access to safe drinking water increased 10% from 2005 to 2006 and the prevalence of common illnesses such as malaria and dehydration decreased over the same time period.
It is unclear if these improvements in health are representative of broader improvements in the livelihoods of Darfurians. In an article in the current issue of Disasters entitled “Conflict, camps and coercion: the ongoing livelihoods crisis in Darfur”, Margie Buchanan-Smith and Susanne Jaspars argue that although “the nutrition and health of conflict-affected populations has improved enormously since the start of the conflict, thanks to the large-scale provision of humanitarian assistance”, “these same people have experienced little change in their livelihoods since the conflict began, and they continue to face serious ongoing threats”.
Food Security in Darfur — trends, current status and impact
Analysts are divided on the question of how to assess Darfurians’ food security. The data contained in the WFP and UNICEF’s Emergency Food Security and Nutrition Assessment in Darfur 2006 indicate that food security in Darfur has been stable over the last year. The report notes, “The number of people requiring assistance is not expected to vary significantly even after taking into account the prospects of the forthcoming harvest, due to the limited number of the food insecure households who have planted a significant acreage of cereals this season” In addition, Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) and Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) prevalence rates in Darfur fell sharply from 2004 to 2005 from 21.8 to 11.5 (GAM) and from 3.3 to 1.4 (SAM) according to the WFP/UNICEF report. Since then, the prevalence rates appear to have stabilized. In addition, the report noted, that levels of livestock production are unchanged from last year. This seems to indicate that although things may not be getting better in Darfur, they are not getting much worse.
Buchanan-Smith and Jaspers examine other indicators to determine the status of the Darfurians. They note a “sharp rise in the number of female-headed households”, restricted access to farmland, the halting of labor migration (a mainstay of Darfur’s economy), the destruction of infrastructure from schools to entire towns, and the loss of livestock to warn that things could get much worse in Darfur. Without maintaining or expanding the level of food aid, they note, the health and livelihoods of Darfurians would quickly deteriorate. However, the WFP/UNICEF report notes that the mean number of income sources had almost returned to their pre-conflict levels by 2005 (see chart). This, the report notes, indicates that food security has not continued to deteriorate in Darfur — which isn’t to say it’s at an acceptable level, just that food security hasn’t been at an acceptable level for a long time.
The most potent indicator of food insecurity is the price of staple food. Historically, Darfur has always had higher cereal prices than central Sudan, the country’s main production area. In the last two years this has been reversed, with food prices in Darfur lower than other parts of the country. On occasions (e.g. mid 2006) this has led traders to buy food in Darfur and transport it for sale in central Sudan. These low food prices are a cause for optimism as they indicate that the market is functioning and general food availability is good. The main reason for this high level of food availability is the general ration provided by WFP. Households have been able to use food sales to buy other commodities and have laid down modest stores of food. Hence, a cutback in food rations is unlikely to lead to an immediate food crisis affecting the majority of the populace. Indeed, the halving of WFP rations in May of 2006 had no discernible impact on food prices, malnutrition or mortality rates. Should the WFP ration be suspended for a longer period then food prices will certainly climb and malnutrition rates will be affected adversely.
There is no question that Darfur remains a major humanitarian crisis. Although mortality is down, the number of people affected and displaced has steadily risen since the start of the conflict in 2003, and is continuing to rise in 2007. This is largely a result of continued rural insecurity which prevents displaced people from returning home, while new attacks create new displacement. In essence, things are getting worse at a slower rate.
It is important to examine the numbers in context. Sadly, the situation in Darfur has been bleak since long before the most recent conflict, and many Darfurians still suffer from hunger and poverty today. Fortunately, the people of Darfur have an unquantifiable ability to cope and persevere through difficult times. As shown in the pie charts below, the perceptions of priorities for the people of Darfur (figure 53, WFP 2006), (table 6.13, WFP 2005) gradually shifted away from security, peace and food and toward other basic needs such as healthcare and education from 2005 to 2006. This is a positive yet somber sign that reminds us that even if things are getting better in Darfur, the circumstances of Darfurians are is still a long way from where they need to be.
Could things get worse? Of course they can! How and why will be the subject of another entry on this blog.
Source: Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), 2005, "Darfur: Counting the Deaths (2) what are the trends?"