NAIROBI (AlertNet) – Sudanese refugees who are stranded in South Sudan with almost no water will start dying in large numbers unless aid agencies respond immediately to what is now a “full blown emergency”, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres has warned.
Some 16,000 people are camped along a dirt road in Upper Nile State after fleeing fighting between the army and rebels in neighbouring Sudan. MSF said they would run out of water in eight days.
Aid workers say refugees in the region are already dying of dehydration and diarrhoea.
"Agencies involved (need) to switch gear and realise this is a full blown emergency – they cannot plan for weeks or months to make it perfect. They have to step up activities right now," Voitek Asztabski, MSF’s emergency coordinator for Upper Nile State, told AlertNet in Nairobi.
"So switch the gear to emergency and realise the seriousness of the situation because otherwise we are going to lose people like flies."
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) is racing to move the refugees by truck from the makeshift site, dubbed K18, to a new camp 60km away before the rainy season makes routes impassable.
MSF warned that if there were heavy rains in the next week refugees would be left stranded without water in an area where temperatures climb to over 40 degrees Celsius during the day.
Even if it rains a lot the refugees will not be able collect sufficient water to survive, aid workers say.
MSF estimates around 35,000 refugees fleeing violence in Sudan's Blue Nile State have crossed the border into South Sudan's Upper Nile State over the last five weeks, taking the total number of refugees in camps in the state to around 110,000.
Fighting erupted in Sudan's South Kordofan State in June 2011 and spread to nearby Blue Nile in September. Khartoum accuses South Sudan, which became an independent country last year, of supporting rebels in the border states, but Juba denies this.
Aid workers say many of the recent arrivals are exhausted after spending months in the bush hiding from fighting.
The refugees at K18 moved there after running out of water at another site known as K43 several weeks ago.
"It was a horrifying journey .... With my own eyes I saw people dying of dehydration, people eating tree barks and leaves," Asztabski said.
"We are basically facing the same situation (in K18)."
MSF called for supplies and services to be boosted at the new site called Camp Batil and another site, Camp Jamam, where 35,000 refugees are based and water is scarce.
The agency said they urgently needed hydro geologists who could discover where to drill for water. UNHCR said on Friday it had received positive tests on two boreholes in Batil.
Arjan Hehenlamp, general director of MSF Holland, said Batil also needed food, tents and medical facilities.
He said the terrain was difficult to work in but added that aid agencies on the ground were partly to blame for the deteriorating situation.
"It is clear to me, having been there and spoken to refugees and some of my team that the aid response in the first couple of weeks of this dramatic influx was woefully insufficient," Hehenlamp told journalists in Nairobi.
Refugees at K18 told Reuters this week that Sudan's armed forces were attacking villages in Blue Nile with warplanes, helicopters and troops, killing civilians and torching settlements.
Sudanese army and civilian officials strongly deny the allegations.