(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Referendum returnees "face food shortages"

Southern Sudanese women drag bags of grain to a central collection point dropped by WFP chartered airplane in the village of Pochalla, Jonglei state
Peter Martell/IRIN

Months before Southern Sudan holds a referendum on possible secession from the north, officials have warned that feeding the influx of expected returnees will pose a problem.

“A lot of people came just before the census, more came just before the elections,” said Matthew Abujin, Southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC) secretary in charge of Central Equatoria. "With the referendum, we are expecting a very big number. Nobody wants to stay on the wrong side of the border.”

The region is set to vote on 9 January 2011, in accordance with the 2005 peace agreement that ended conflict between the north and south. Observers believe the south is likely to vote to break away from the north and become a separate country – raising additional challenges.

Many southerners have yet to return to their areas of origin. In Gedaref State of North Sudan, where more than 200,000 displaced southerners live, many have expressed a desire to return. "Joint efforts and plans need to be put forward... to repatriate the IDPs [internally displaced persons] before the referendum,” Augustino Areeno, adviser on peace and unity to the state governor, told the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS).

In Central Equatoria, some 25,000 out of 47,579 people who are registered as displaced have so far returned. Many of the returnees have, however, come back to a food-starved region.

“I foresee increased food needs,” said Alghassim Rhasim Wurie, deputy coordinator for the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Southern Sudan. "Last year there was drought in the region, including Ethiopia and Southern Sudan. And there is insecurity.”

Clashes in Khorfulus after the April elections forced an emergency food distribution. Between 7 and 10 June, WFP dispensed 73MT to about 4,500 people in Khorfulus and another 26MT to more than 1,600 people in Canal County.

Some 13,000 people were displaced by violence in Khorfulus County, UNMIS spokesman in Southern Sudan Joe Contreras told IRIN in July.

Feeding returnees

WFP feeds some of the returnees, but faces challenges. It had planned to halve the number of beneficiaries in July, but continued when the UK donated some 40,000MT of food worth US$30 million. That quantity can feed 5.3 million people for a month. “It came at a critical time when we were planning to reduce our rations,” Wurie said.

That was when conflict following the April elections, an influx of returnees, late rains and flooding were threatening to cause severe food shortages in this largely unfarmed vast scrubland.

''With the referendum, we are expecting a very big number. Nobody wants to stay on the wrong side of the border''

“It’s up to government to bring stability,” said the British Minister for Africa and the UN, Henry Bellingham, during a recent stopover in Juba on a four-nation tour of the continent during which he announced the UK food aid. “This area has got very many streams. It should be [self]-sufficient in agriculture.”

Unreliable rains

According to the SSRRC, displacement and ethnic conflicts have reduced in the south and this should have been a bountiful year. But the rains that ought to provide relief to farmers have been unreliable – or have wreaked havoc.

“The rains started late," Abujin said. "They were heavy. In some places they destroyed the crops.” The extent of the food shortfall will be known after an assessment planned for September. Eastern Equatoria, Lakes and Greater Bahr el Gazal were hardest hit, according to WFP.

The most vulnerable populations, according to the Food Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net), are in Jonglei, Warrap, Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Eastern Equatoria states, where food insecurity is associated with lean season shortages, exacerbated by insecurity and displacement.

“The population is big, the consumption is big,” says Angela Bayo, a SSRRC coordinator for Eastern Equator. “And things have become very expensive.”

This could inflate already high food prices. “In some places one bag of sorghum can buy one cow, which means the price of food can be very high,” says Wurie.

Should prices hit the ceiling, officials fear, returnees will be hardest hit. “These have come after the rains – too late to cultivate, unless it’s cassava, which takes two months to yield,” Abujin said, pointing to the returnees staring at the piles of food at the distribution centre in Juba, the Southern capital. “Some find their land occupied,” he added.

Some are unemployable owing to rusty skills. “I don’t know if I will find work,” says Margaret Kiden, a returnee who trained as a nurse for three years, graduating from Juba Teaching Hospital in 1983. Kiden worked for 15 years but after moving to Khartoum, never worked again.

“If there is any work for me, I will do it,” she added.

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