The carcasses of camels dot the parched landscape of this once-lush Red Sea oasis--a grim omen of famine that may again hit Sudan.
“The rains may come or not, but for a century water has burst from the hills each year to wash through the delta,” said agriculture ministry official Said Babaker.
This year, for the first time in living memory, the water from neighboring Eritrea did not come.
The delta used to allow the cultivation of 170,000 acres of cotton and sorghum. Now the green patch is only a few hundred acres and--like elsewhere in Sudan--famine looms.
The tough nomadic tribes of the area have started moving on in search of water for camel herds. For some, it is already too late. Only the carcasses of their camels remain.
“People were shortsighted. We relied on the delta and we never thought there would be a shortage,” said one farmer.
Satellite images of Sudan show that the vegetation belt has been pushed hundreds of miles south of the Sahara desert frontier since 1988, somber evidence of widespread crop failure and two years of drought.
Relief agencies predict that up to 6 million people in Sudan could face serious food shortages in the coming months, and aid workers say the government is doing nothing to help.
“Famines are as unpredictable as floods and earthquakes,” World Food Program Director Trevor Page told journalists in Khartoum in November.
But relief agencies say that planning against possible famine has not taken place and that the government is too poor to import food in adequate quantities.
“If they had conserved their surplus from previous years they could have addressed the problem,” says U.S. Aid Director Frederick Machmer.
The U.S.-based human rights group Africa Watch has accused the government of contributing to the crisis by policies such as its sympathy with Iraq in the Persian Gulf crisis, which has alienated major potential food donors.
“While drought has helped to precipitate the famine, the ultimate responsibility for the crisis must lie with the government, which has pursued a narrow set of political, economic and military goals with near-total disregard for the welfare of its citizens,” the group said.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, food stocks are nearly exhausted.
Nevertheless, an estimated 330,000 tons of food were exported from Sudan between January, 1989, and May of this year. Many officials say the money was used to fund government forces fighting a civil war against rebels in the south.
Relief agencies are in near-stalemate with General Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s military government, which denies a threat of famine and refers to food shortages as a “food gap that can be bridged.”
Bashir’s government says it can meet the deficit by a huge drive to grow food crops in place of cotton.
But aid officials say the government refuses to declare famine and call for international relief because this would undermine its stated policy of “we eat what we grow.”
“We are working on figures of between 500,000 tons and a million tons food deficit in the Sudan,” Machmer said.
Sudan’s self-sufficiency drive has drawn skepticism from relief officials who warn of a disaster potentially greater than the 1984-85 drought in which an estimated 200,000 people died.
“It takes months to get the food commitments, find ships and get them here with the current (Persian) Gulf situation,” Machmer said.
“We’ve already run out of time if we’re planning to bring food in by January to March,” he added.
Toward the end of October, Sudan appealed for 75,000 tons of food, but so far only 19,000 have arrived.
According to Relief and Rehabilitation Minister Peter Orat, the WFP food was to supply 2.4 million people over four months.