Cash crunch risks grounding UN air ops in Sudan

3 min

Khartoum (AFP)

UN humanitarian air operations in Sudan face being grounded because of an acute cash crunch, aid officials say, affecting the delivery of relief to thousands of people in conflict areas.

The United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) has funding that will barely keep it flying until the end of November, raising the possibility that operations may have to cease from December.

UNHAS has two fixed wing aircraft and three helicopters, but has already stopped flying to five out of 41 locations in the African country.

"We are currently funded until end of November and we require one million dollars more to continue operations until the end of the year," Bianka Zyra, Sudan spokeswoman for the World Food Programme which manages UNHAS, told AFP.

"If we don't receive that one million dollars then operations will cease."

Aid workers say UNHAS is a vital service for delivering humanitarian supplies, especially medicines, in Sudan's conflict-wracked regions such as Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan.

The UN helicopters can access deep field locations that are extremely difficult to access by road.

"Although primarily a passenger service for aid workers, UNHAS delivers perishable vaccines which by road either take too long or due to bumpiness would shatter," Zyra said.

UNHAS also ferries international delegations, foreign diplomats and Sudanese officials to war-wracked areas to assess relief work.

- 'Full funding' needed -

The current financial situation is critical for UNHAS as it now has to raise funds almost on a weekly basis.

"We are getting $500,000 from here or $250,000 from there," Zyra said when the service needs about $1.4 million a month.

"What UNHAS really needs is full funding, not only to the end of the year but extra money in terms of being able to plan strategically to be able to meet rising needs."

Those needs are increasing in part because the Sudanese authorities are offering relief workers more access to several previously no-go areas after Washington made it a condition that Khartoum must meet for a permanent lifting of decades-old US sanctions against Sudan.

On October 12, US President Donald Trump is to decide whether to permanently lift the sanctions imposed in 1997 over Khartoum's alleged support for Islamist militant groups.

UN officials say there would be huge delay in delivering aid to tens of thousands of people if UNHAS stops flying.

"In a country like Sudan this would imply huge delays due to the distance and poor condition of the roads, as well as potential inaccessibility in certain parts of the country where insecurity is still high," the top UN aid official in Sudan, Marta Ruedas, said, citing carjackings in the past.

"The areas that have been made accessible recently are particularly difficult to reach and therefore this is especially true of these areas."

- Shortfall could mean chaos -

Khartoum has allowed more access in recent months to remote areas such as the mountainous Jebel Marra region in Darfur, which for years witnessed fierce fighting between government forces and rebels.

UNHAS fell off the radar of global donors amid an overall shortage of funds faced by aid agencies in Sudan.

The UN's 2017 humanitarian response plan had aimed to raise $804 million from global donors, but as of September 24 it had received $304 million, just 38 percent of the total amount, says the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA.

Aid officials say that almost every relief operation has been affected by the funding shortage, but the situation could become chaotic if UNHAS flights cease.

"Half of the humanitarian community will be stranded and many projects will have to scale down," said Zyra.

"In the short term the chaos will be great."