Southern Sudan: Attack On Food Boats Disrupts Operations

An attack on river boats carrying WFP food in southern Sudan has caused a serious setback to food distributions to displaced people in the region. WFP is now airlifting supplies to the affected region but Michelle Iseminger, in Juba, warns that this is only a temporary solution.

KHARTOUM -- Armed men attacked the 27-boat convoy on the Sobat river, a tributary of the White Nile, on Friday. The boats, on their way south to the town of Akobo, were carrying sorghum and other food aid to IDPs who had fled tribal fighting in South Sudan.

"Deteriorating situation"

Kenro Oshidari standing in front of the WFP warehouse in Sudan

WFP's Sudan Country Director Kenro Oshidari

"We have seen an increase in inter-tribal (or tribal) fighting in Southern Sudan in recent months. This could derail recovery and rebuilding efforts that we are supporting in South Sudan.

"The attack on the boats carrying WFP food meant for 19,000 internally displaced people in Akobo County is a major blow to our operation, it is indicative of the deteriorating humanitarian situation which we as part of the UN family in Sudan are very much concerned about.

Read more about WFP in Sudan

Here's Michelle Iseminger, the head of WFP's Juba programme, with the latest on the attack and what WFP is doing to reach the affected beneficiaries.

1) What's the latest information you have on the attack on the boats?

So far 16 boats have returned to Nasir, all without the food they were carrying. UNMIS peacekeepers report that 5 boats may have sunk (WFP Juba Logistics heard that 4 had sunk).  In any case, no food by boat has reached Akobo. We have no news on any of the other boats.

2) How big a blow is this for WFP food distributions?

This is a massive blow for the operation in that we are trying to get into Akobo for the first time since April. That was the last time we managed to do a 15-day ration for about 16,000 people.  Now, the blocking of the north route, via the Sobat River, will prevent not only humanitarian aid but also commerical trade from reaching Akobo and all points along the river south of Nassir.

WFP plane

The result of not being able to move large quantities of food aid by river is that WFP will have to resort to airlifts. These started on Saturday 13 June.  Unfortunately, the amount of food aid required is in the hundreds of metric tons (mt) and the Buffalo planes we use can only carry 5 mt on each trip.

3) Is it becoming harder for WFP to work in southern Sudan?

Southern Sudan has always been a challenging environment to work in logistically because of the limited or non-existent infrastructure available for road surface transport.  The worrying development for WFP in 2009 is the marked increase in inter and intra-tribal conflict that has lead to insecure roads, more displaced populations and less agricultural activity (which will bring a lower than expected harvest).  

From January to May 2009, over 135,000 IDPs have been registered as in need of food aid, that is double what we had before the Abyei Crisis of May 2008.

4) Will WFP continue to use boats to transport food and what can it do to protect convoys?

The boat option is the only effective means WFP has to get the large quantities of food aid needed to the affected populations.  WFP, along with the UN mission and OCHA are collaborating with the government to negotiate safe, secure humanitarian access along the Sobat.  In the short-term we will use our air operation facilities to get some small quantities of food into Akobo. But that is not a long-term solution for what is a complex problem.