UN, Relief Officials Signal New Famine Threat in Southern Sudan

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PEOPLE in parts of war-ravaged southern Sudan are again facing potential famine.

This is the most recent assessment from United Nations, United States, and other relief officials interviewed by the Monitor.

Both Sudanese rebel and government officials are also concerned.

Drought is part of the problem. Late rains - if they come - could reduce considerably the risk of famine, if the rains aren't so heavy they wash away seeds, relief officials say.

But even if rains come, as they have started to in some southern areas, the next harvests are likely to be smaller than normal due to the lack of earlier rains, relief officials say.

"We're on the edge of a real crisis period," says Michael Priestley, the UN official in charge of relief in all of Sudan.

"It's a potential famine situation," says Neils Engvist of the UN's World Food Program office in Nairobi, which sends much of the food relief to southern Sudan. He notes that the area is very difficult to serve: many roads are currently blocked by rains, and food airlifts are extremely expensive.

Mr. Preistley cites three reasons why relief officials must be especially alert now:

- Internal refugees. Thousands of Sudanese who fled their homes in the South for towns and cities as far north as the capital, Khartoum, have begun returning home. But once home, the drought has forced many to move on, as they try to survive on wild fruits, water lilies, and fish.

- Low reserves. There is "virtually nothing" in the way of food stocks in much of the South, says Priestley. Stocks may be completely used by October, he adds.

- Rains. Priestley says that if rains don't come by the end of July, "There will be a real problem."

"Rains could still start, but a large amount of early crop failure will weaken the already fragile food-supply situation," according to Pierre Ohure Ukeruk, secretary general of the rebel relief organization, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association.

Priestley and other international and UN relief officials say there has already been a total loss of early crops in some areas of the South. And large swarms of birds have swooped down and stripped crops in some other areas. …