Another disaster brews in Darfur

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

ABU SHOUK CAMP, Sudan — Wells at this giant Darfur refugee camp are drying up.

Women wait as long as three days for water, using jerrycans to save their places in perpetual lines that snake around pumps. A year ago, residents could fill a 5-gallon plastic can in a few minutes, but lately the flow is so slow it takes half an hour.

"The water is running out," said a breathless Mariam Ahmed Mohammed, 35, sweating at the pump with an infant strapped to her back. "As soon as I fill one jerrycan, I put another at the back of the line."

Water isn't the only endangered resource. Forests were chopped down long ago, and the roots were dug up for firewood. Thousands of displaced families are living atop prime agricultural land, preventing nearby farmers from growing food.

As the Darfur conflict approaches its fifth year, the environmental strain of the world's largest displacement crisis is quickly depleting western Sudan's already-scarce natural resources. And experts say that is exacerbating chronic shortages of land and water that contributed to the fighting in the first place.

"There is a massive resource problem in Darfur," said environmentalist Muawia Shaddad, head of the Sudanese Environment Conservation Society. "We've been shouting about this for years, but no one listened."

In the struggle to bring peace to Darfur, where an estimated 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million more have been displaced, questions about dwindling natural resources have largely been brushed aside as the emergency effort focused on saving lives and feeding the hungry.

But with reports bubbling up from Darfur camps about water shortages, over-stressed land and increasing deforestation, aid workers and Sudanese activists say finding long-term solutions to the region's environmental woes is just as crucial as restoring security and reaching a political compromise.

"The clashes could all stop tomorrow and we won't have moved any closer to solving the real problems of Darfur, which I think come down to the environment," said Cate Steains, acting head of U.N. humanitarian operations in El Fasher, capital of the region's northern province.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, visiting Darfur last month, pledged increased attention to resource shortages.

"The government with international assistance will have to ensure that the people of Darfur have access to vital natural resources -- water being chief among them. The U.N. stands ready to assist in this effort," Ban said.

For decades, western Sudan has grappled with climatic changes, particularly in northern Darfur, which lies along the edge of the encroaching Sahara.

Over the last 50 years, annual rainfall in El Fasher has been down 34%, turning millions of acres of grazing land into desert, a recent United Nations Environment Program study found.

Tree coverage in Darfur has dropped as low as 18%, from 48% in 1956, Sudanese forestry researcher Kamil Shawgi said. During the same period, the population of the region -- a territory a quarter the size of California -- swelled fivefold to 6.5 million; the number of grazing animals increased from 30 million to 130 million.

For generations, Darfur's farmers and herders managed to share the land. Clashes were settled through tribal mediation. But after unprecedented droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, Darfur residents found it more difficult to occupy the same space.

The Sudanese government is accused of exploiting these tensions and pushing the conflict to a new level. After Darfur rebels attacked government facilities and personnel in 2003, officials in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, allegedly responded by arming herders, mostly members of Arab tribes, and allowing them to attack farming villages believed loyal to the rebels. The Arab militias, known as janjaweed, were promised that they could keep land as part of the bargain, U.S. and U.N. officials say.

The U.S. government has described the ethnically charged conflict as "genocide." But at its root, many say, Darfur is also a "resource-based" conflict, fueled by competition for land and water amid a changing climate. With its fragile ecology and political instability, Africa should brace for more such clashes, experts say. "What we're seeing in Darfur could happen in many other places," said Shaddad, the conservation society chief.

Abu Shouk, long viewed as one of the best-planned and well-equipped camps in Darfur, could become one of the first environmental casualties. If engineers don't find a solution to the water shortage, Abu Shouk may be abandoned, forcing a costly and traumatic second displacement for the 54,000 people here.

Haydar Nasser, head of UNICEF's El Fasher office, which helps provide water to the camp, said three of the 33 wells at Abu Shouk are completely dry, and nine are losing production.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that no one is monitoring how much water residents take. It was assumed that each person would use about 4 gallons a day, but average consumption is 6 gallons, and some residents take 15.

Water is intended to be used for drinking and washing, but as the conflict drags on, residents are using it to generate income. Some are filling up donkey-drawn steel drums with free water from Abu Shouk and selling it in El Fasher, according to a recent report by Tearfund, a British-based Christian relief group.

Even more ends up poured into dirt pits to create mud for a booming brick-making enterprise. Workers, mostly young men and boys, can earn $5 a day.

Knee-deep in muck, student Mohammed Aden Ibri, 19, said he needed to raise $250 for tuition at his private high school in El Fasher. "This is the only way I can pay for school," Ibri said.

Despite the shortages, aid workers say they are reluctant to impose water-rationing or restrictions on use. "You have to allow people to have a livelihood," said St. John Day, water coordinator at the relief group Oxfam.

But as lines grow longer, friction is more common at the pumps, said Asha Abdulla Noor, 50, who has lived in Abu Shouk for three years. "They shouldn't use the water for bricks," she said. "But you can't tell people not to take the water. They just say, 'This water is from the foreigners, and I'm free to take it.' "

The presence of more than 12,000 aid workers and 7,000 African Union peacekeepers in Darfur is adding to the strain because foreigners tend to use four times as much water as locals. Finding enough water for the 26,000-troop U.N. peacekeeping force approved this summer will be yet another drain.

As Darfur becomes drier, it is also getting browner. Forests that once lined the edges of Abu Shouk and El Fasher began disappearing before the camp opened, but now women must walk miles across barren land just to find branches for kindling.

That hasn't stopped the camp from devouring vast quantities of wood. Having exhausted the local supplies, some residents began importing truckloads of freshly cut trees from hundreds of miles away.

"The trees here are finished, so we have to drive two days to find it," said Ismail Omar, 52, standing in front of a 20-foot pile of logs for sale at Abu Shouk's wood market.

Most of the wood is bought for cooking fires or to fuel brick-making kilns, which need about 35 trees to bake 100,000 bricks, a Tearfund study found.

Aid workers encourage residents to conserve, introducing fuel-efficient stoves and opening tree nurseries. Hoping to offer a solution to the water shortage, a U.S. scientist recently said he'd detected a vast underground lake in northern Darfur. Sudanese scientists say they already knew about the underground water; the problem is finding the money and political will to drill for it.

"Science and resource management are not priorities in a military regime," said Abduljabbar Abdulla Fadul, an El Fasher University senior lecturer in natural-resource management.

Experts warn that Darfur's environmental problems are likely to continue long after the conflict ends; in fact, peace may put more strain on resources.

Hundreds of villages have been destroyed, and the marauding militias have often poisoned wells and chopped down trees to discourage residents from returning. As a result, a massive rebuilding effort will be needed. Replacing homes for all 2.5 million displaced people could require up to 16 million trees, Tearfund estimated.

"That's a fast-track ticket to more desertification," Shaddad said.

On the flip side, many families may opt to remain in the camps even after the fighting ends, creating a permanent strain on the host communities.

Abu Shouk, with its schools, free health clinics and thriving marketplace, is expected to evolve into a suburb of El Fasher, where the population has doubled over the last five years. Young people in particular say they prefer the opportunities of living in an urban setting.

"I like the El Fasher life," said Nasser Adeem Mohamadin, 18. He and his family had to flee his village three years ago, but the move meant Mohamadin could go to school for the first time. Rather than be a farmer like his father, he now wants to become an engineer. He recently helped his family replace their straw hut and plastic sheeting with solid mud walls and a permanent roof. Said Mohamadin: "I'm staying."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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