UN Blocks Nutrition Solution for Yida

By Caelin Briggs

For much of the year, Yida refugee camp on the border of Sudan and South Sudan is hot, dry, and seemingly barren. (Watch our video to get a glimpse of camp life.) Yida’s 70,000 residents depend almost entirely on the World Food Program (WFP) for nutritional support, and receive rations of sorghum, yellow peas, oil, and salt. This diet has brought many people back from the brink of severe malnutrition. But while the refugees may not be starving, today we are seeing a new challenge emerge: nutrient deficiency.

The problem is simple: people cannot sustain themselves over the long term on a diet of sorghum and yellow peas alone. An interagency nutrition survey showed anemia in 34 percent of children under five – a level considered “serious” by the World Health Organization. Food security experts view anemia as an indicator of overall nutritional well-being, leading many to fear that the health of Yida’s refugee population could be slowly deteriorating.

Even more troubling is that this survey was carried out while blanket supplementary feedings were taking place in the camp. They have since stopped.

In many refugee settings, agriculture and livelihood programs allow families to buy or grow food to supplement their diet, but this is not the case in Yida. Poor security conditions in and around Yida caused the camp to be designated a “transit site,” meaning only lifesaving assistance can be provided there. Any aid that could be seen as encouraging refugees to remain – including support for farming – is discouraged by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

With the number of nutrient-deficient refugees rising, it is imperative that UNHCR rethink its strategy. A refugee experiencing nutrient deficiency is far more susceptible to illness, and so growing anemia rates threaten not only individual refugees, but also the overall public health of the camp.

NGOs and UN agencies have suggested that “kitchen gardens” (small-scale plots where refugees can grow their own vegetables) could be the answer. Unlike large-scale farming programs, kitchen gardens are widely regarded as not having a long-term affixing effect. These gardens have also been successful in combatting nutrient deficiency in other refugee-hosting areas of South Sudan; and given that the refugees living in Yida are farmers by trade, such a program could be very effective. Additionally, the land underneath Yida is actually not barren at all – rather, it is a fertile, red loam that is suitable for growing crops.

Nearly all humanitarian staff based in Yida support the rollout of kitchen gardens, but UNHCR’s leadership has consistently withheld the necessary funds – a move that public health experts describe as “a big mistake.” UNHCR claims that despite their small size, kitchen gardens will make people less willing to relocate to camps in safer areas; instead, it has called on WFP to resume its supplemental feeding programs. Unfortunately, supplemental feeding programs are much more costly, which is why they are typically used only in cases of malnutrition and where other options are unavailable. Given that the population of Yida is not malnourished – and with cheaper, better options available – relying on supplemental feedings would not be wise.

With the rainy season in South Sudan now well underway, the window for planting kitchen gardens has closed for the moment. But aid agencies should start planning for the fall so they do not find themselves in the same situation next year. Increasingly, humanitarian actors are recognizing that the population of Yida is unlikely to relocate, so they must start thinking about long-term strategies now.

Kitchen gardens are a cheap and effective way to improve refugees’ quality of life, and as soon as the rains cease, UNHCR should fund and support the distribution of seeds so Yida's residents can grow food for themselves.