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SUDAN’S FOOD-HUNGER SYSTEM*

By: Edward Thomas



Sudan’s main cereal harvest is taking place right now. Two new reports from food security monitoring organizations suggest that the harvest will be below average, perhaps significantly below average. This is terrible news for Sudan, which depends on the labour of its farmers for most of its food.


Sudanese diets are very cereal dependent, and cereal consumption is a proxy for total energy intake. About two-thirds of total cereal demand is supplied from domestic production of millet and sorghum, and about one third is imported wheat. Just before the start of the conflict, FAO projected annual demand at around 11 million metric tons, of which about 7 million tons were for food use (the rest were for stocks, seeds, and animal feed).


This year, the farmers will play an outsize role in food security – because Sudan’s ability to finance imports has been sharply reduced, and its infrastructure for processing and distributing wheat has been partially destroyed by conflict.


Many well-fed Sudanese and foreign observers believe that Sudanese people are dependent on foreign food aid, but this is far from true. Food aid makes only a small contribution to total food intake. In 2020, the last year for which WFP actual distribution figures are available, WFP distributed about 200,000 tons of cereals, about 2 percent of total cereal use. Food aid is likely to be less than that this year, because it is more difficult to distribute.


The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) is a consortium of donors and aid agencies which monitor food insecurity. It uses a five-phase classification of the problem.

  • Phase 1, Minimal: households can meet essential needs for food and other basics

  • Phase 2, Stressed: households have enough to eat, but skimp on some other basics

  • Phase 3, Crisis: households cannot meet minimum food needs, or can only meet minimum food needs by selling assets they need to survive

  • Phase 4, Emergency: households are reducing food consumption to the point of acute malnutrition, or are forced to liquidate all their assets or take up desperation livelihoods

  • Phase 5, Catastrophe: Severe acute malnutrition, destitution, starvation, death.


Right now, the harvest is underway. But the latest update from the IPC says that the levels of hunger are at unprecedented levels. About half the population in Khartoum, Kordofan and Darfur are projected to be at crisis levels or worse: ‘These figures are the highest ever recorded that coincide with Sudan’s harvesting season.’


People in Sudan’s main conflict zones are already hungry – even at harvest time, when food is most plentiful. But the bleak forecasts that have come out over the past few weeks suggest that things will be far worse when harvest stocks are depleted. This situation is expected to worsen across the country in the post-harvest months from February to May (the winter wheat harvest, due around March, is predicted to mitigate food insecurity in the small wheat-producing area of the far north). The lean season between May and October is likely to be even worse.


Hunger happens unevenly. For most of the twentieth century, and most of the present one, Sudan’s rulers organized a food-hunger system that kept them in control. People in the cities along the Nile were more likely to be fed – and within those cities, hunger was pushed towards poorer, peripheral areas. Rural people, even those in areas of agricultural production, were more likely to go hungry. The breakdown of this food-hunger system played a big role in the fall of former dictator Omar al Bashir. During and after Sudan’s oil boom, Khartoum’s population faced mostly lower levels of food insecurity. When Bashir could no longer afford to import wheat, hunger spread and people organized his downfall.


Hunger is distributed in a geographically uneven way. Across the country, the IPC projection suggests that about 10 percent of the population will be facing a food emergency – selling up what they have while they go seriously hungry. That’s almost 5 million people. Over a million of them live in five cities – the national capital, the capital cities of North, South, West and Central Darfur, and the capital city of North Kordofan. The worst affected populations are projected to be in Al-Geneina, West Darfur; Al-Fasher, North Darfur; and Nyala, South Darfur – where over a quarter of the population are projected to face a hunger emergency. These areas are mostly under the control of the RSF: the new food-hunger system will reshape Sudan’s politics.


The most recent national food security survey was a multi-indicator cluster survey conducted by UNICEF in 2014 – three years after the secession of South Sudan and the start of a long economic crisis. The study found that overall levels of food insecurity were rising sharply to about 20 percent of the population – food insecure households consumed only cereals and vegetables, seldom or never eating oils and pulses, and never eating meat or dairy. In many areas of Darfur and Kordofan, food insecurity levels were significantly higher.



The most recent estimate of malnutrition in children under five was produced by the nutrition cluster in Sudan in 2022. It found that about 3 million under-5s were malnourished, and over 600,000 were severely malnourished. Since the conflict, one donor has estimated that the number of acutely malnourished children under 5 has increased from around 3 million to 3.4 million since the start of the conflict, and that the number of severely malnourished children has also increased. But these figures are based on projections from decontextualized models, and they appear to be very optimistic.


Malnutrition is likely to lead to significant increases in morbidity and mortality. A malnourished child is three times as likely as a healthy child to die of a treatable disease. A severely malnourished child is three times as likely as a malnourished child to die from a treatable disease.


Four major factors likely to complicate malnutrition are the uneven distribution of immunization programmes, the collapse of health programmes in conflict areas, pharma supply shortfalls, and the stresses on water system.  

  • Sudan’s immunization programme is largely funded by donors, who decided after the start of the conflict to administer the programme through the UN system rather than the Federal Ministry of Health. UNICEF reported in October that it had distributed vaccines in states under the control of the SAF: Blue Nile, Gedarif, Gezira, Kassala, Northern, Port Sudan, River Nile, Sennar and White Nile – with some distribution in the national capital too. Vaccine distribution in RSF areas is likely to be harder to achieve, and cold chain breakdowns are frequently reported.

  • Health systems in conflict zones of Khartoum, Kordofan and Darfur are deeply stressed. For example, reports from El Fasher in mid-November suggested that only one hospital was still functioning. The RSF is reported to be still recruiting and paying doctors, but these doctors are likely to provide medical services primarily to RSF personnel and their families. Most health services are inaccessible to people without money, but the militarization of health services is likely to make health care inaccessible to people without the military connections too.

  • Pharma imports have resumed, and the pharma supply situation has improved slightly – despite continuing shortages of chronic disease medications. But pharma imports are coming through Port Sudan. Egypt is restricting pharma imports across its southern border: a group of Sudanese pharmacists reported in November that they had to throw away significant quantities of insulin because the Egyptian authorities refused to allow exports except through Port Sudan. Pharma supplies to Darfur are not getting through: pharmacists in El Fasher, North Darfur, reported that no anti-malarials are available in pharmacies there. Pharma supplies to SAF-controlled areas also face barriers: pharmacist groups report that pharma supplies are being captured by traders with political connections to the old regime of Omar al-Bashir.

  • Water systems are also under pressure. Gedaref was one of the centres of the cholera outbreak – it is a city with severe seasonal water shortages and many people depend on donkey cart delivery of water, according to one person interviewed in November. People in Gedaref believe that water systems played a part in the outbreak, he said. A November report from El Obeid, North Kordofan – a city of 800,000 people with water shortages – indicated that people were paying between 2,500 and 3,000 Sudanese pounds, worth about US $3, or a little less than the local daily casual labour rate reported for October 2023. Water tanker owners say that they have to pay up to 20,000 Sudanese pounds per trip in checkpoint fees to the RSF.


All these factors are likely to contribute to complex patterns of malnutrition and disease over the next few months. These patterns are likely to be geographically uneven too – the conflict has dramatically deepened existing fragmentations in food and health systems. Even if Sudan manages to stay together as one country, its vital systems may not.


CEREAL AVAILABILITY: THE 2023 HARVEST


Sudan’s main harvests of millet and sorghum come in November and December, and they account for about 95 percent of the country’s total cereal production. The 2022 harvest was about 20 percent higher than the previous five-year average. Above-average in-country stocks have probably helped to cushion food security during a year of conflict.  

 

What will this year’s harvest bring? It is hard to know, because state-level agricultural surveys, which form the basis of production statistics, have been compromised by conflict. Some states say they are surveying production, but survey results have not been announced yet, as the harvest is still underway – and it is not clear if these surveys can be aggregated.

 

Available evidence suggests that this year’s sorghum and millet harvests are likely to be smaller than last year’s. The US government’s Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) aggregates data on harvests from markets, satellites and interviews. Its October 2023 report says that across the country, planting, production, and harvesting are both expected to be below average. FAO said in November that the planted area had shrunk by about 15 percent this year. Domestic supply is likely to contract.  

 

But domestic cereal supply contraction is likely to happen in geographically uneven ways. Sudan does not have a unified food system. Some production systems are more commercialized, some less. Some consumers are more dependent on markets, some on own consumption. Urban areas eat wheat, rural areas eat millet or sorghum. All these differences are being intensified by the current crisis, and that means that the spatial and social distribution of food insecurity, malnutrition, and associated morbidity and mortality will be even more skewed than it was in 2014.


Sudan’s agricultural sector is usually divided into three main groups 


  • 6 million hectares of semi-mechanized rainfed commercial farms, mostly lying along the clay plain between South Kordofan and the Ethiopian border, and worked by landless labourers. Yields are marginally lower than those on commercial farms, but some are able to sow and harvest more than once in a year.  

  • 8 million hectares of ‘traditional rainfed’ farms, found across the country but most important in Kordofan and Darfur, and worked by producer households. Crop yields are marginally higher than those on commercial farms.  

  • 0.6 million hectares of irrigated land, mostly commercialized and lying along the Nile. Crop yields are typically four times higher than traditional and commercial rainfed farms.  


Conflict is exacerbating this unevenness:  


  • Producer households in conflict areas, and near conflict-affected cities, have reduced planting, production and harvesting because they are afraid to travel to or work on farms. 

  • Commercial rainfed farms have reduced planting, production and harvesting because of shortages of fuel, agro-chemicals and labour. 

  • Commercial irrigated farms are even more dependent on fuel and labour inputs for maintenance of irrigation systems as well as planting, growing, and harvesting. 



CEREAL AVAILABILITY IN DARFUR


People in Darfur and Kordofan were historically more likely to face food insecurity than their compatriots in the eastern half of Sudan. But they produced almost half of Sudan’s cereal supply. Most of them cultivate on traditional rainfed farms – small farms which mostly use family labour and consume part of what they produce.


These farms rely on rainfall to succeed, because they have relatively low reliance on inputs and hired labour. Their lack of dependence on inputs, relative to other farming systems, makes them better placed to maintain production, relative to more input-dependent systems. For this reason, the UN humanitarian system has prioritized seed supplies to this sector, reportedly providing 10,000 tons of seeds to farming families before the planting season which began in June this year.

 

However, because traditional rainfed farms are more common in western areas of Sudan, they are more exposed to conflict, which will hit productivity badly. Satellite data published FEWS indicates that 2023 witnessed a significant contraction in vegetative cover in farmland south of Nyala, suggesting reduced planting this year – probably as a result of violence around the town and increased risks of sexual violence for women farmers, who play an outsize role in agricultural production in Darfur.


Any reduction in food availability in Darfur and Kordofan will interact with histories of malnutrition, and severely compromised health, immunization and water systems – and will contribute to increased mortality and morbidity there.


CEREAL AVAILABILITY IN OTHER AREAS OF SUDAN


Commercial farms, mostly found in the centre and east of the country, produce about half of Sudan’s cereal supply. Food security projections suggest that areas with a high concentration of commercial farms are less likely to face crisis levels of food insecurity in the immediate post-harvest season, but by February, the population of most of these areas is likely to be in crisis. One reason is that production and yields are likely to go down for a number of reasons: 


  • The main commercial farms are near the Ethiopian border, and depend heavily on Ethiopian migrant workers, who are deterred from labour migration because of the collapse in thecurrency. 

  • Commercial farms depend on imported fuel and agro-chemicals, and these are likely to be affected by the currency collapse and the rise in prices of food and agro-chemicals.  

  • Lack of financing, increases in tax and road fees and in transport costs have all increased the cost of production and depressed sales 


Projected contraction in commercially produced cereals is likely to be compounded by projected shortfalls in the wheat supply. In 2022, Sudan imported about 2.8 million tons of wheat – almost a quarter of a million tons a month. Such trade data is no longer available, but plant quarantine data cited by FEWS suggests that wheat imports contracted sharply after April 2023, falling to 27,000 tons in August.  

 

Several factors underlie this contraction in supply:


  • Wheat is an urban commodity, and economic demand is down in war-affected cities. 

  • The country’s milling infrastructure has all but collapsed. The main mills are based in Khartoum are no longer operational. DAL, a major wheat importer, has a small mill in Khartoum and is reportedly importing wheat flour from Egypt.  

  • Banks no longer supply credit for traders operating in RSF areas, and they no longer issuing letters of credit (a guarantee from a creditworthy bank that a Sudanese importer will pay a foreign exporter on time).  

  • Imports of wheat are financed by dollars earned from Sudan’s main exports, of gold, livestock and crops, and these exports have been hit by war and financial crisis.


MARKETS AND ACCESS TO CEREALS


Sudan’s current crisis is linked to its historically fragmented markets. Insurgencies begin in less commercialized parts of the country, where land is not yet a commodity, and succeed if they can change power structures in the commercialized part of the country – the states around the capital.  

 

Grain markets are particularly fragmented, for cultural as well as material reasons. Wheat is an established part of city culture. Sorghum surpluses, many of them grown in Gedaref, circulate mostly along road and rail networks within a 500km radius around the capital – the oldest commercial grain network in Africa. Millet is more likely to be consumed at home, and circulates mostly in Darfur, where it is a preferred grain. As a result of this fragmentation, there are often significant differences in prices for basic foodstuffs across the country.  

 

The conflict is exacerbating cereal market fragmentation. In surplus production areas, some price falls have been witnessed, as farmers and traders are unable to handle surplus. The following table from WFP shows price fluctuations in selected states. 



WFP estimates that the cost of a local food basket rose by about 51 percent between January and October 2023. But those price rises have happened unevenly – and people’s ability to pay for food is very uneven. Wages for casual labour vary significantly across the country, with daily rates lowest in areas where prices are highest. Across the country, wages have stagnated against a backdrop of very high inflation.  


Traditional rainfed farms may be able to mitigate price rises by consuming their own stocks. But the war has deeply damaged traditional production systems. And in any case, the areas where traditional production predominates – Darfur and Kordofan – have been shattered by mass displacement. The main economic aim of displacement in places like Darfur and Kordofan is to move farmers off their lands so that pastoralists can deal with the climate crisis that is destroying their pastures. Darfur is the centre of displacement in Sudan: about 40 percent of over 4 million newly displaced Sudanese are in Darfur, and most of the 3 million people living in displacement before the start of the April 2023 conflict live there too. Some people cultivate in displacement, but many are not able to, and they have to rely on cereal and labour markets to survive.  

 

People in Khartoum, another epicentre of conflict and displacement, are already almost entirely dependent on cereal and labour markets to survive. Many of the people staying in Khartoum are doing so because they cannot afford transport or living costs in neighbouring states (many of the Khartoum people too poor to flee have their origins in conflict-affected parts of the country, and live in areas of the capital associated with displacement). 



Edward Thomas has worked in Sudan and South Sudan as a teacher, human rights worker and researcher for over 15 years. 


*This is an original piece written exclusively for PeaceofSudan.Space and has not been published elsewhere.




 





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