More than 650,000 people have been displaced or severely affected by fighting in two Sudanese states, the United Nations said on Wednesday, expressing hope that a newly signed aid deal will lead to much wider access after months of restrictions.
The U.N. has expressed concern for months about a worsening humanitarian situation in the South Kordofan and Blue Nile war zone, but Khartoum cited security concerns in tightly restricting the operations of foreign aid agencies.
On Sunday, however, Sudan signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.N., African Union and Arab League to allow for humanitarian access throughout South Kordofan and Blue Nile -- including in rebel-held areas.
“It has taken 14 months to get to this point,” Mark Cutts, the U.N.’s acting resident and humanitarian coordinator, said after a mid-year briefing to aid agencies, diplomats and others.
“We greatly welcome the government’s acceptance of this initiative and signing of a memorandum of understanding,” he said, expecting “major progress” on reaching needy civilians over coming days and weeks.
The agreement calls for ceasefire zones that would allow the aid to flow, officials said.
A similar memorandum has been reached with rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), who have been battling government forces since June last year in South Kordofan, and since September in Blue Nile state.
“We estimate that there are in Blue Nile about 145,000 people who are either displaced or severely affected by the conflict and some 520,000 in South Kordofan,” Cutts said.
Details of how to implement the agreement, including whether aid will go by air or road, are still being worked out, he added.
“We have a very tight time line and we do expect to see some significant progress very soon on this issue,” he said.
Sudan’s government has been providing aid, but most of it has gone to government-controlled areas, where the U.N. has assisted but with its movements restricted.
Steps towards improved access in South Kordofan and Blue Nile come as the U.N. expresses “serious concerns” over humanitarian funding for Sudan, where the aid operation is one of the world’s largest.
“The reduction in funding is a direct reflection of the lack of humanitarian access to vulnerable people and growing restrictions on how assistance is delivered, as well as competing regional priorities,” a U.N. document said.
It cited “an increasingly difficult operating environment” including the government’s recent request that seven international aid groups cease operations in eastern Sudan. The move will affect 600,000 people in need, it said.
Cutts said that if donors “feel that there is not adequate access to assess needs and to monitor, then they have made it very clear that this will have an impact on the funding that they give us.”
By the end of June the U.N. had received only 43 percent of its required funding, down from 55 percent at the same time last year.
Cutts said the global economic crisis was also partly to blame.
The U.N. plans to spend just over $1 billion in Sudan this year providing food, education, health and other services.
Ali Adam, a Sudanese humanitarian official, told reporters that “access is not an issue” if security is in place.
A Sudanese driver for the U.N.’s World Food Program was shot dead in South Kordofan last Saturday and his colleague was wounded. They were travelling on a main road north of the state capital.
In Darfur, where the U.N. provides food for about 3.2 million people including 1.7 million in camps, a WFP compound was looted for about 12 hours last week during unrest in the North Darfur town of Kutum.
Despite the continuing large-scale displacement of people following the Darfur war that began in 2003, Cutts cited a “very positive development” in the return home of 178,000 refugees and displaced people in Darfur between January 2011 and March this year.