GENEVA – The U.N. food agency said Friday it is cutting rations in half for about 3 million refugees in Sudan's war-ravaged Darfur region because of a shortage of money, calling it "scandalous" that it has to stretch out supplies while it pleads for funds.
The World Food Program said it would reduce food handouts to 1,050 calories a person starting Monday — down from the 2,100 calories that is considered the daily minimum requirement, meaning some of those being helped could eventually face starvation.
"This is one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. Haven't the people of Darfur suffered enough?" James Morris, the U.N. program's chief, said.
About 180,000 people have been killed and 3 million driven from their homes by fighting in the western Sudanese region since February 2003, when rebels from black farming villages took up arms against what they consider discrimination and oppression by the Arab-dominated government.
Sudanese government leaders allegedly encouraged militiamen from nomadic Arab tribes to wage a campaign of murder, rape and arson against civilians in the villages, and the international community poured in help in 2005 while pressuring both sides to settle the conflict.
"What is deeply disturbing is that these funding shortages threaten the gains made last year by humanitarian agencies in Darfur, where malnutrition levels went down by half," Morris said. "We were making great progress."
Donor governments have given the World Food Program only $238 million of the $746 million the agency needs this year for the whole of Sudan, said WFP spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume.
"It's scandalous that people don't have enough to eat," she said. "We don't have enough money."
She said the World Food Program cannot divert money to Darfur from its other missions because donors earmark funds for specific operations.
By reducing daily rations, the program says its food stocks will last through the region's rainy season from July to September, when needs are greatest before the next harvest. Some people are able to supplement rations from other sources, but others depend on WFP for all their food.
"We cannot put families who have lost their homes and loved ones to violence on a 1,000-calorie a day diet. But we have been pushed into this last resort of ration cuts in Sudan so we can provide the needy with at least some food during the lean season," Morris said.
A diet of 1,050 calories a day is "not really appropriate" over a prolonged period, said Denise Coitinho, head of the nutrition department at the World Health Organization.
She said that while the impact will be affected by a person's health to start with and the nutritional balance of the diet, for an adult "if it's not accompanied by other food sources, then it would lead to weight loss."
This year, the United States has contributed $188 million, the majority of WFP's funding for Sudan. Other contributions have come from theU.N. Common Humanitarian Fund, as well as the governments of Libya, Canada, Norway, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium.
The agency is targeting all national governments for more donations because the situation is critical. "In a situation like that you just call all of them and say, 'We have a problem,"' Berthiaume said.
The private sector may also contribute some funding, although the shortfall is so large that only governments can really raise the required amount, she said.
The program said it already cut rations in March and although some funds have arrived since then, "they were too little and too late to avert the new round of cuts."
It takes up to four months from when a donation pledge is made to when food actually arrives in Sudan.
Similar cuts in rations will also be made in eastern Sudan, where the U.N. program helps Eritrean refugees and displaced families. In Sudan's south, which is recovering from two decades of civil war, people are better able to supplement their diets with locally grown food.
"Throughout this critical year for Sudan, when peace must be allowed to take hold, WFP urgently needs donors to come forward so that we can guarantee food aid to the millions of Sudanese who so desperately need our help," Morris said.