Over 95% of people cannot afford a meal a day: The largest humanitarian crisis Sudan has ever known

Sudan starvation
5 min read
04 March, 2024

Ten months into a war that has sent Sudan to the "verge of collapse", the vast majority of its people are going hungry, with less than five percent of Sudanese being able to afford a square meal a day.

Since last April, Sudan has been gripped by fighting between the regular army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which has killed thousands and created what the United Nations calls "the world's largest displacement crisis".

A combined 10.7 million people have been uprooted by the current war and previous conflicts, according to the UN.

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Nine million remain displaced within Sudan, where the World Food Programme's (WFP) Sudan country director, Eddie Rowe, says a "lethal cocktail of continued conflict has stalled harvests and rampant and consistent displacement risks plunging millions more into a catastrophic humanitarian disaster."

Across Sudan, which the WFP says was already facing one of the world's worst food crises before the war, 18 million people are facing acute food insecurity.

Of those, Rowe said "close to five million are on the precipice of catastrophe," enduring one of the worst emergency classifications the WFP uses, second only to famine.

Aid groups have for months warned that as a result of hampered humanitarian access and severe underfunding, the spectre of famine looms over Sudan.

However, the same obstacles to aid delivery inhibit the ability to determine the extent of the catastrophe.

According to Michael Dunford, WFP's Eastern Africa regional director, there is a major issue in "the availability of the data to confirm one way or the other whether or not the thresholds (required to declare a famine) have been met".

With WFP only able to reach 10 percent of those in need, "there are large tracts of the country that we simply cannot access."

Sudan's most fertile regions could have helped ward off famine, if not for the fighting encroaching into the country's agricultural heartlands.

In December, a paramilitary advance brought the war to Al-Jazira state, just south of the capital Khartoum, which was set to produce the bulk of Sudan's grains for the season.

"Thousands of smallholder farms and even the large-scale schemes have been deserted, because people are on the move running away from the conflict," Rowe said.

"As we approach the hunger season," he said, the crisis is only set to "further deteriorate".

The lean season, roughly from April to July, usually sees food prices run high as stocks dwindle ahead of the next harvest.

With markets across the country already empty and an ongoing communications blackout hampering all transactions, Dunford says the future is bleak.

"This is a country on the verge of collapse," he said.

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Aid workers sound the alarm over spiralling crisis

Sudanese aid worker Shakir Elhassan and his family were among millions forced to flee their homes and former lives after war broke out last year in Sudan.

Some 10 months later, he is one of many voices in the sector warning of a devastating humanitarian crisis that could soon spiral into famine.

"The needs are unprecedented," the communications manager at Care International said, deploring a lack of global attention.

"There is a huge gap in medicines, food," he said, speaking to AFP from the east of the country after what he described as 10 days without internet.

"On the road, there were thousands of people moving on foot, in a state of panic. Most of them were women and children"

Elhassan fled the capital Khartoum in July, joining his wife and three children who had already sought refuge 180 kilometres (110 miles) further south in the town of Wad Madani.

But in December the RSF attacked the town in Jazirah state, which had become a "humanitarian hub" for the region.

"It was horrific, I moved out from Jazirah just with the clothes" on my back, he said.

"On the road, there were thousands of people moving on foot, in a state of panic. Most of them were women and children."

He and his family found shelter some 400 km east of there, in the provincial capital of Kassala state near the Eritrean border, where they still live and he says he sees a constant trickle of new arrivals.

"People arrive in Kassala exhausted, some of them sick, starving. Many of them told me they are bankrupt," he said.

"I have seen thousands of people here sheltering in very poor conditions," he added.

'People will die' 

The United Nations says outbreaks of diseases pose a growing threat, particularly in overcrowded shelter sites, with the country already facing outbreaks of cholera and dengue fever.

Inside the country, some 25 million people — more than half the population — need humanitarian aid. Of those, 18 million face crisis or worse levels of hunger.

Ten months on from the start of the conflict, many are struggling to find food to eat.

"It will be the largest humanitarian crisis Sudan has ever known... If food cannot be brought in through the humanitarian route, people will have nothing because there is nothing on markets"

William Carter, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, visited Darfur in recent weeks.

"Aside from the trauma and the physical loss, what struck me is the level of hunger," he said.

"People have sold everything. Bakeries are not producing even half of what they do usually because they have no flour nor wheat."

France-based non-governmental organisation Solidarites International warned that Sudan — already one of the poorest countries on the planet — would be "going straight into a famine" if nothing was done.

"It will be the largest humanitarian crisis Sudan has ever known," said its regional director Justine Muzik Piquemal.

"If food cannot be brought in through the humanitarian route, people will have nothing because there is nothing on markets," she added.

"People will die of hunger."