Tick, tick, tick

September 05, 2004

THE NEXT wave of death is approaching. That's the very real fear of aid workers tending to 1.2 million Sudanese who have fled a campaign of ethnic violence in their native villages. If food, clean water and medicine don't reach the displaced refugees struggling in vast areas of Darfur province, aid groups say, a public health crisis is inevitable. Already, there are signs of it: An outbreak of infectious hepatitis E has hit west Darfur, according to a report last week from the World Health Organization.

The United Nations' relief effort remains critically underfunded -- only half of the $531 million needed in the coming months has been received. The United States is driving the U.N. humanitarian effort, but its resources are limited. Member countries can tarry no more -- dollars will save lives.

Since the violence began 18 months ago, the focus of international pressure has been on Sudan to disarm the marauding Arab militias that have killed 30,000 black Africans in the Darfur region, looted and burned their homes, raped women and girls and enslaved others.

The Sudanese government has taken measured steps to rein in the militias since the United Nations imposed a 30-day deadline a month ago. Lack of security remains a significant threat, but the immediate crisis concerns the health of famished refugees who have crowded into 147 camps in Darfur and neighboring Chad.

Their condition is dire because only half of the 1.2 million refugees, including 500,000 children, received food rations in August, when logistical and security problems were exacerbated by torrential rains. The already poor roads in this vast, inhospitable region the size of France became almost impassable.

Malnourished refugees remain at great risk for disease. At least 2,314 people have been stricken with hepatitis and 41 have died because of it, WHO reports. The chief officers of Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and CARE estimate a two- to three-week window to distribute needed food, clean water and medicine. If it closes without a response, they say, the death toll will rise -- dramatically.

For aid groups to meet this daunting challenge in western Darfur, they require the cooperation of the Sudanese government. To ensure that help, the United Nations must press its demand that Sudan disarm and police the militias it conscripted to put down a black African rebellion a year and a half ago. It should also remind the Sudanese government that its failure to secure the region would result in a call for economic sanctions.

That kind of double-headed hammer has worked in the past to move the Sudanese to act. The participation of African Union peacekeepers has proved helpful in an area beset by ethnic conflict, where they have stepped up to the challenge admirably. Their presence should be expanded, and their support increased.

There is little doubt that the humanitarian crisis in Darfur will intensify without continued international intervention -- and if the need is unmet, there is little doubt that thousands of Darfurians won't be returning home.

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