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Sudan: Famine Risk Is Real, FAO Warns


Rein Paulsen, Director of FAO’s Office of
Emergencies and Resilience, is in the country as part of UN
interagency response to the food security crisis driven by
the war between rival military forces, now in its second
year.

“We’re here because the risk of famine is
real. The food security situation is concerning. But we have
an opportunity to respond,” he told UN News,
speaking from the coastal city of Port Sudan.

Funding
and access

Across Sudan, 18 million people – more
than a third of the population – are going
hungry.

Mr. Paulsen appealed for more support for
farmers, who are preparing their land now to plant crops in
June.

FAO requires $104 million to support just over
10 million Sudanese this year but has received less than 10
per cent of the funding.

He said safe access is also a
priority, both for Sudanese farmers and the UN
agency.

This interview has been edited for
clarity and length.

Rein Paulsen:
There’s a number of actions that both can and
need to be taken right now, and I do think it’s vitally
important that we underscore one key point at the outset.
The crop and food supply assessment mission, which looked at
2023 numbers, showed a 46 per cent reduction nationally in
terms of the production of key crops, so wheat, sorghum,
millet, and also rice and maize.

That deficit is not
going to be possible to be made up with just in-kind food
assistance or with cash distributions. It’s indispensable
that we support vulnerable farmers and farming communities
to either restart their production themselves or further
bolster what’s underway.

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FAO has a three-pronged
strategy. A key component is around crops for the two main
seasons, so cereals for this upcoming season and then key
vegetables for the second season, but also attention to
livestock. So many of those who are in acute food insecurity
also rely on, livestock, and so being able to support those
animals with emergency fodder and key vaccinations, all of
which help to ensure that households that are food insecure
continue, for example, to have access to milk production
from their goats.

All of this is indispensable for
effective famine prevention efforts. We have a window of
opportunity, and that window is right now.

UN
News: In your meetings with the parties, do you receive any
guarantees that they will do what they can to avoid a
further deterioration of the food security
situation?

Rein Paulsen: I
had the opportunity on this mission to meet with authorities
here in Port Sudan. The discussions we’ve had have gone very
well. We have a strong technical collaboration and I expect
that collaboration to continue.

We work on a number of
different technical areas with authorities, including around
desert locust control and prevention. We’re likely to see
the Government announce in the coming days, or in the coming
weeks, that the desert locust control operations have been
fully successful.

We’ve talked about the priorities to
respond to the situation now being shared with all of the
stakeholders there, articulated clearly in the interagency
famine prevention plan. And we hope that we get all the
support required to be able to deliver on the
response.

There are two key sets of challenges for
FAO, and I think generally one set of challenges around
funding and another around access. Both need to be addressed
for us to be able to prevent the risk of famine from
unfolding.

The funding issue is a real challenge. We
have less funding this year than we did last year, and the
food insecurity situation is worse this year than last year,
so those two trends are heading in the wrong
directions.

UN News: Can you tell us what it’s
like to be a farmer in Sudan, or an average Sudanese person
living in a in a rural area
today? 

Rein Paulsen: I
had a chance to visit with some farming communities that FAO
has been supporting last year. The families that we met with
were describing a situation where, in addition to everything
that’s happening in various parts of the country around
conflict – and we do know that conflict is the main driver
of the crisis – that wasn’t the case with the families that
we met. They also faced challenges when it comes to climate
dynamics and challenges.

We were in fields looking at
crops that have been harvested, but we were also looking at
earth dams that have been washed away earlier this year as a
result of flooding in the past. And so, there’s a precarious
reality for vulnerable farming households that needs
attention.

I think it’s really important to understand
that the situation of those in acute food insecurity is
nuanced and different by specific location and locality. But
for me, the main takeaway from the engagement with these
communities was that I saw production taking place.

We
saw ripe tomatoes being harvested and going into local
markets – again a reminder that it’s possible to do
impactful, life-changing, lifesaving work, even in
challenging environments.

UN News: Sudan is
very fertile, and like you said, there’s a lot of potential
for food production. But obviously there are reasons
preventing farmers from reaching their lands. Can you give
us some of those main
reasons? 

Rein Paulsen:
If we look particularly at the situation over this
last year, conflict is clearly the main driver when it comes
to the current hunger crisis and food insecurity.

Nine
out of ten people facing emergency food insecurity are in
the conflict hotspots, so in Darfur, the Kordofan region,
the Khartoum area, and recently also in Al Jazeera state
which is often described as the breadbasket in terms of
production nationally.

We’ve also heard reports from
farmers about inability to access their plots of land. And
for us, as a specialised technical agency, it’s not just
about giving inputs to farmers. We also provide technical
assistance, but they obviously need access to their land to
prepare it.

They need access to the land to plant and
to monitor and surveil their crops, and then to be able to
harvest. This issue of being able to access farming land is
key and a major priority and concern.

UN News:
You spoke earlier about agricultural support to mitigate the
food insecurity crisis. Can this still be effective even as
the conflict rages on? 

Rein
Paulsen:
We’ve been able to demonstrate that it’s
possible to deliver at scale, even in very challenging
circumstances. Just last year, FAO supported more than five
million Sudanese people with emergency agricultural
assistance.

We provided to more than a million farming
households more than 10,000 metric tonnes of key seeds,
including sorghum, millet, as well as okra. And we did that
across 15 states. It was only in West Darfur and Central
Darfur that we had challenges in terms of
delivery.

So, it’s possible to deliver at scale, and
in terms of access, it’s possible to work. Obviously, the
situation is very dynamic, and we do hope and request and
continue to work with all of the actors and
stakeholders.

This year, our plan is to support more
than 10 million Sudanese people with emergency agricultural
assistance. The plans are ambitious but fully justified in
line with the evolving situation. I would say funding is a
very real challenge, and we need to be guided by evidence,
we need to be focused on those contexts and situations where
we have high levels of acute food insecurity, and there
needs to be funding commensurate with the level of needs
that exist. And we strongly feel that Sudan merits and
deserves a lot more attention than it’s currently
receiving.

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