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The distant famine

How Covid-19 and war in Ukraine are leaving Sudan on the brink

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Kimberly Morris for the Deseret News

As bombs continue to fall in eastern Ukraine, their impact is felt 2,500 miles away in northeast Africa, where a breastfeeding mother teeters on the edge of starvation. Residing near Nyala, the capital of Sudan’s war-torn South Darfur province, she makes a living cultivating groundnuts on a meager half-acre plot. Whatever sales she makes used to go toward a basic food basket for herself and her three young children. But she can no longer afford to feed both herself and her kids. Most days, she goes without food. And it’s about to get worse. 

She was one of about 15 million people already suffering from acute or severe hunger in Sudan this summer, according to Eddie Rowe, country director for the United Nations’ World Food Programme, who met her on his most recent visit to Darfur. Hunger isn’t new to this arid strip between the Sahara Desert and the African tropics. Political turmoil and civil conflict, erratic rains made worse by climate change and the worst drought in 40 years are familiar culprits here, and the coronavirus pandemic, which dramatically decreased food production worldwide, aggravated matters. 

But now those conditions are converging with the impact of a war between two of the world’s biggest breadbaskets. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February is fueling an “unprecedented global hunger crisis,” according to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, due to a rise in the price of food, fuel and other key commodities. The WFP estimates that as many as 50 million people in 45 countries are at risk of famine. Sudan is likely to be among the hardest hit, with another 3 million projected to join this young mother in her predicament this fall. 

Before the war began in February, Russia and Ukraine accounted for nearly a third of global wheat production. For months, fighting along Ukraine’s eastern coast and a Russian blockade on the Black Sea prevented grain ships from safely leaving ports, causing a global shortage and sending prices skyrocketing. The Black Sea is still infested with hundreds of mines dropped by both sides, and reports have emerged of Russian soldiers deliberately bombing and torching wheatfields. Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, has accused Russia of using food as a “weapon of war.”

Limited shipments returned in August under a deal brokered by the U.N. and co-signed by Turkey, but about 20 million tons of grain meant for export are still trapped in the country. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said this number could rise to 75 million tons after this year’s harvest. And it’s not only wheat. Ukraine is the world’s largest exporter of sunflower oil; Russia is the largest when it comes to fertilizer, and a significant provider of crude oil. By disrupting these supplies and heaping pressure on agricultural production worldwide, the war has led to soaring costs for fuel, transportation and food production. 

People worldwide are feeling the pinch. In the United States, rising food and energy costs have helped push inflation to its highest level in 40 years. Food prices in Britain were expected to rise by up to 15 percent this summer. But it is the world’s poorest that are taking the punch. Sudan, one of the poorest countries in the world, is especially reliant on wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia, which supply between 70 percent and 80 percent of its market needs, according to a 2021 U.N. report. 

“Sudan’s climate is usually unsuitable for growing wheat,” explains area expert Gillian Lusk, although thousands of farmers still cultivate the grain under a government irrigation scheme. However, drought and the outbreak of pests and disease means wheat production has decreased by 13 percent over the past year to about 600,000 metric tons, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization. For sorghum and millet, popular local alternatives, that decrease could be as much as 37 percent.

Together, these factors have left a third of Sudan’s nearly 47 million population on the brink. Three million children under five years of age are suffering from acute malnutrition in the country, leading to stunted growth, severe wasting — where children are too thin for their height — and a much higher risk of death. 

Political turmoil, drought and the coronavirus pandemic are converging with the impact of a war between two of the world’s biggest breadbaskets. Funding shortfalls in July forced the World Food Programme to cut rations for refugees across Sudan to just half of a standard food basket.

To keep her expenses low, the young mother in Darfur used to travel to a large market nearby, where prices were cheaper. But the cost of transport has tripled because of the rise in the cost of fuel. Now she has to walk, roughly six miles each way, two-and-a-half hours in the scorching heat. Her difficult choices highlight the complex nature of this particular famine, with causes far beyond the food itself.

“The main cause of hunger now is the collapse of the economy, greatly heightened since October’s coup,” Lusk says. Sudan has suffered through long-standing economic troubles, worsened by last year’s military overthrow of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who had been appointed as part of Sudan’s democratic transition after 26 years of dictatorship.

Today, the Sudanese government is too cash-strapped to help its people. It had previously committed to buying the little domestic production of wheat that remains, promising incentivizing prices for local farms, but it ended up reneging on the promise due to a lack of funds. Almost a third of Sudan’s domestic production — roughly 150-200 metric tons, according to the WFP — is now rotting in farmhouses. It’s as if Sudan is trying to put out multiple house fires with a single bucket of water.

Some worry the crisis could launch instability across the region, in the same way that record food prices preceded the Arab Spring a decade ago. In Sudan, bread isn’t only a staple of the diet, it’s also political. Baladi, a traditional flatbread, accounts for 530 calories per person per day according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. Soaring baladi prices in 2019 were a significant factor that led to the toppling of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir. 

Now, skyrocketing inflation — averaging 354 percent in 2021, according to Sudan’s Central Bureau of Statistics — has triggered protests and civil unrest in a country still grappling with the long-standing Darfur conflict in the East. “Despair and desperation are synonymous with the emotions of the (Sudanese) communities,” Rowe explains, “a spike in the bread price could lead to mass protests.”

Any solution would be far from simple. Sudan — like many other countries in Africa — relies heavily on U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations to bolster its state institutions. But international organizations are also impacted by rising food and fuel prices. Funding shortfalls in July already forced the WFP in Sudan to cut rations for refugees across the country to just half of a standard food basket due. And now, amid costs that have increased a quarter since last year, there is evidence of acute food insecurity in all 18 of Sudan’s states. 

“We now have to make heart-wrenching decisions in targeting locations where we can provide nutrition assistance due to lack of funding,” Rowe explains. He estimates the organization will face a shortfall of over $370 million in just the second half of 2022. A corresponding influx of cash would help in the short term, but that’s certainly not a given. 

What worries Ian Mitchell, a food security specialist from Chatham House, an international policy institute based in London, is that aid budgets from wealthier countries are currently being refocused on Ukraine. For example, this May, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved nearly $40 billion in new aid for Ukraine — about a fifth of the usual global aid budget. In contrast, a U.N. appeal for aid to Yemen in March raised only $1.3 billion, less than a third of the organization’s target to deal with one of the world’s largest and most complex humanitarian emergencies. 

“There is no answer to the food crisis without an answer to the finance crisis,” the U.N.’s Guterres said in a statement in May. He went on to highlight the need to support farmers by investing in resilient food systems — for example, the provision of pesticides or hybrid seeds — to increase yield and protect crops against pests and the worsening effects of climate change in years to come. 

For the young mother in southern Darfur, future solutions are too distant to think about. She  only managed to plant on half her tiny plot this year due to a previous poor harvest. She is just as afraid of long dry spells as she is of a surprisingly aggressive rainy season flooding her crops. She is currently doing odd jobs — like selling charcoal — to buy the food necessary for her family’s survival. Her situation, and that of millions of others, is only set to get worse without urgent aid in a country where, according to UNICEF Sudan, 78,000 children under five years of age are already dying every year from preventable causes.  

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.