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Death rate soars in drenched South Sudan refugee camps

July 6, 2012 | 10:21 am

Soaked by rain yet short on clean water, refugees who have fled from Sudan to South Sudan are perishing from diarrhea and other preventable diseases at devastating rates, as aid agencies make anguished pleas for more help

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

Soaked by rain yet short on clean water, refugees who have fled from Sudan to South Sudan are dying from diarrhea and other preventable diseases at devastating rates, aid agencies said as they made anguished pleas for more help.

In the Jamam refugee camp, now a muddy swamp, nearly three children are dying every day, according to the group Doctors Without Borders. The death rate is nearly double the emergency level and four times higher than normal in a developing country.

The deluge has soaked through blankets and pushed latrines to overflow, sullying the water that floods the camp. Some stretches of the camp have become a sea of thick mud as far as the eye can see, said Tara Newell, the group's emergency coordinator for the region.

"It's an overwhelming problem and an underwhelming response," Newell said. "The conditions are entirely unacceptable, even unlivable. If we don't relocate these refugees from this camp, we will see an even higher mortality rate."

The rain has cut off roads into Jamam and other camps, forcing aid agencies to rely on airlifts to bring in supplies and staff, Newell said, calling it the most logistically difficult situation she had ever seen. Malaria season is beginning, adding to the existing ailments of diarrhea, malnutrition and pneumonia.

Despite the downpour, clean water is scant, with many refugees getting less than a third of the water they need daily, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Rainwater is being harnessed, but it has yet to quench the demand.

"The night it rained, our tents filled with water. Everything was wet and no one was able to sleep. The children were cold and crying," 35-year-old Shaba told Doctors Without Borders on Wednesday. Her family has lived in Jamam since December. "There was no dry space to cook food, so we spent a day without food."

The outpouring of refugees into South Sudan has overwhelmed existing camps and available aid. More than 110,000 people have poured into Upper Nile State in Sudan; the U.N. had only planned for 75,000 refugees in the area. Refugees say they have been driven across the border by Sudanese army bombings, killings of accused rebels and their supporters, as well as food shortages.

The U.N. has been accused of failing to act quickly enough to protect the refugees, Channel 4 News in Britain reported on a recent visit to South Sudan. Weeks ago, the U.N. pleaded for an additional $219 million to address the crisis. It had received less than $46 million by Wednesday. Hungry people continue to arrive in the camps every day, nearly half of them children.

The crisis has been fueled by the ongoing instability in Sudan, which has been at odds with South Sudan and facing unrest at home as well. While refugees pour across its southern border, protesters, angered by a slate of recent cuts and demanding greater freedoms, have been taking to the streets elsewhere in Sudan to call for the overthrow of the government.

As protests continued across the country for a third week, Sudan and South Sudan resumed talks Thursday aimed at reducing border tensions. So far, no resolution has been announced.

For the record, 3:31 p.m. July 30: A previous version of this post quoted Doctors Without Borders saying nearly nine children were dying daily in the Jamam refugee camp. Doctors Without Borders later said it had misinterpreted the data and that nearly three children were dying per day.


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Photo: A Sudanese woman tries to protect herself from the rain as she sits outside her hut at the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan on Thursday. Credit: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images