April 09, 2014 (UN) — The United Nations peacekeeping operation in South Sudan was severely criticized on Wednesday by Doctors Without Borders, the emergency medical charity, over what it called a shameful indifference to the squalid living conditions of 21,000 displaced people forced to shelter in a flooded portion of a peacekeeping base in the capital, Juba.
The rebuke from Doctors Without Borders was unusual because the charity cooperates with the United Nations in many underserved countries and has been a vital source of aid in South Sudan, which is facing the most severe humanitarian crisis in Africa and perhaps the world, compounded by a political conflict that escalated in December.
About 3.7 million people in South Sudan, a third of the population, are at risk of starvation as the rainy season looms, United Nations officials have said. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the conflict.
In a detailed statement, Doctors Without Borders said officials of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, known by its acronym, Unmiss, had failed to respond to repeated requests by the charity to improve conditions at the Juba base, Tomping, where the displaced live in a low-lying area separated by a barbed-wire fence from empty dry space within the compound.
“The Unmiss decision not to improve conditions in Tomping is shameful,” Carolina Lopez, the charity’s emergency coordinator, said in the statement. “People are living in natural drainage channels because there is no other space.”
The statement said the first rains of the season had collapsed 150 latrines in Tomping, their contents mixing with floodwater and creating a severe risk of waterborne illnesses. It said diarrheal disease, respiratory infections and skin ailments already accounted for more than 60 percent of the cases seen by the charity’s medical staff in the camp.
Repeated requests by the charity and other relief groups that Unmiss allow residents to relocate to the dry part of Tomping have been “inexplicably refused,” Ms. Lopez said in the statement.
“Whether as a permanent or interim solution, expanding the camp into the dry parts of the U.N. compound must happen immediately,” she said.
United Nations officials have been aware of the problems at Tomping. Hilde F. Johnson, the head of Unmiss, said last week that the camp was at “imminent risk of turning into a death trap” and would be closed by the end of April. Unmiss officials have moved more than 1,300 residents to another camp outside the capital. But Doctors Without Borders said it was unclear how quickly — if at all — the others could be relocated as the rainy season descends.
“They say there is not enough space in Tomping, but this is a sickening argument when on the other side of the barbed wire from where displaced persons are crowded there are dry parking lots and storage spaces,” Ms. Lopez said.
Reached for comment, Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the United Nations in New York, reiterated the intention of Unmiss to clear the displaced from the Tomping camp, which he said was “never meant to hold so many people for so long.”
Last week, the United Nations official in charge of coordinating the relief effort in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, said the country needed $230 million in international emergency aid in the next two months or it would suffer the worst mass starvation to afflict Africa since the Ethiopia famine of the 1980s.